Renewal of U.S.-China Science and Tech Pact Faces Hurdles

STATE DEPARTMENT — With a science and technology agreement between the United States and People’s Republic of China due to expire Tuesday, the State Department said it is negotiating to “amend, extend, and strengthen protections within” the agreement but declined to specify if the U.S. would extend the deal.

“We are not able to provide information at this time on specific U.S. negotiating positions or on whether the agreement will be extended past its current expiration date,” a State Department spokesperson told VOA.

The Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement is a framework for U.S. governmental collaborations with China in science and technology.  

U.S. officials have said the STA provides consistent standards for government-to-government scientific cooperation between the U.S. and China.  

While the agreement supports scientific collaboration in areas that benefit the United States, U.S. officials acknowledge the challenges posed by China’s national science and technology strategies and its domestic legal framework.

Critics, including U.S. lawmakers, point out China’s restrictions on data and a lack of transparency in sharing scientific findings. Washington is also concerned about personal safety of American scientists who travel to China, as well as Beijing’s potential military application of shared research.

A report by Congressional Research Service said China’s cooperation under the agreement has not been consistent. For example, “China reportedly withheld avian influenza strains required for U.S. vaccines and in 2019, cut off U.S. access to coronavirus research, including U.S.-funded work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” said the CRS.

Advocates for renewing the agreement want to maintain some level of official and unofficial contacts amid strained relationship between the two countries.  

During a recent discussion hosted by the Washington-based Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS), panelists said the STA is “important symbolically” and gives confidence to researchers on both sides to deepen their engagement with counterparts.

“In the event of the agreement’s non-renewal, the mutual confidence that sustains and underpins collaboration is bound to suffer,” said ICAS in its post-event summary.

Dean Cheng, a senior advisor to the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the American system is far more open, so China will typically be able to gather information regardless of whether there is an agreement.

“The STA is no guarantee that American scientists will, in fact, be able to access Chinese research, information, or scholars, whereas the Chinese side will use the STA as a means of establishing an even greater presence in the U.S.,” Cheng told VOA, adding the “strategic advantage” under the deal will likely be with the PRC.

The STA was originally signed in 1979 by then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter and then-PRC leader Deng Xiaoping. Under the agreement, the two countries cooperate in fields including agriculture, energy, space, health, environment, earth sciences and engineering, as well as educational and scholarly exchanges.

U.S.-China science and technology activity increased in November 2009 with new agreements on joint projects in electric vehicles, or EVs, renewable energy, and the creation of the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, or CERC, a 10-year research effort between the U.S. Department of Energy and China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

The agreement has been renewed approximately every five years since its inception, with the most recent five-year extension occurring in 2018. Last August, it received a six-month extension as officials from the two countries undertook negotiations to amend and strengthen the terms.

Pentagon Absolves Itself After Secrecy Surrounding Austin’s Hospitalization

washington — An internal review blames privacy restrictions and staff hesitancy for the Pentagon’s failure last month to quickly notify the president and other senior leaders about Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s hospitalization for complications from prostate cancer surgery.

The review, which was done by Austin’s subordinates, largely absolves anyone of wrongdoing for the secrecy surrounding his hospitalization, which included several days in the intensive care unit. And it says flatly there was “no indication of ill intent or an attempt to obfuscate.”

Instead, the 30-day examination of the lapse — which angered the White House and members of Congress — says procedures must be improved and information shared better about when the defense secretary must transfer decision-making authorities to the deputy.

Austin has been called to Capitol Hill on Thursday for a House hearing and is expected to face sharp criticism. The Defense Department’s inspector general is also conducting a review, which has not yet been completed.

Austin was diagnosed with prostate cancer in early December and went to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for surgery on December 22. On January 1, he was taken back to Walter Reed by ambulance after experiencing significant pain and was moved to the intensive care unit the next day.

Although he transferred decision-making authorities to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks during his initial surgery and then again when he was in intensive care, he did not tell her why and he did not inform the White House.

Pentagon officials have acknowledged that public affairs and defense aides were told on January 2 that Austin had been hospitalized but did not make it public and did not tell the military service leaders or the National Security Council until January 4. Only then did President Joe Biden find out. It took four more days before the reason for his hospitalization was disclosed.

Defense officials released an unclassified summary of the review on Monday and a set of recommended changes. The review suggests there was no established method for handling such an incident, and the fact that his hospitalization was “unplanned” contributed to the failure to let others know.

It also says Austin’s staff was limited by medical privacy laws that prohibited doctors from providing information and they “were hesitant to pry or share any information they did learn.” It adds that since Austin’s condition was “in flux” they could not ensure “timely secured communications.”

Major General Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters Monday that Austin’s aides found themselves in an “unprecedented situation.” He said that as Austin was being moved into intensive care, his aides recognized that he would not have access to critical communications, and they made the decision to transfer authorities to the deputy.

The fact that staff and not Austin made the decision raised questions about who was in control of the department at that moment, including America’s nuclear arsenal. Ryder said there were “no gaps” in command and control of the department.

Pressed on the lack of blame and whether anyone is being disciplined, Ryder said, “as the secretary has said, the buck stops with him and he’s taking responsibility for not notifying the president and the White House sooner.”

He added that “dedicated public servants were doing what they thought was the right thing.”

The 30-day review was finished and submitted to Austin on February 8, but only parts of it were publicly released. The Pentagon has argued that portions of the report are classified.

Austin, in a press briefing after he returned to work, told reporters that he never told his staff to keep his surgery and hospitalization secret from the White House, but acknowledged he should have handled it differently and he apologized for keeping Biden and others in the dark. He denied there was a culture of secrecy in his office, and also said that staff members may have perceived that “they’re doing things in my best interest.”

The recommended changes include better guidelines for the transfer of authorities and better reporting requirements during those incidents.

His secrecy about the hospitalizations prompted the White House to issue new guidelines to ensure it will be informed any time a Cabinet head transfers decision-making authorities when they are unreachable due to medical, travel or other reasons.

Ex-FBI Informant Charged With Lying About Bidens to Remain Jailed While Awaiting Trial

Los Angeles — A former FBI informant charged with fabricating a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme involving President Joe Biden’s family must remain behind bars while he awaits trial, a judge ruled Monday, reversing an earlier order releasing the man.

U.S. District Judge Otis Wright II in Los Angeles ordered Alexander Smirnov’s detention after prosecutors raised concerns that the man who claims to have ties to Russian intelligence could flee the country.

A different judge had released Smirnov from jail on electronic GPS monitoring after his Feb. 14 arrest, but Wright ordered him to be taken back into custody last week after prosecutors asked to reconsider Smirnov’s detention. Wright said in a written order unsealed Friday that Smirnov’s lawyers’ efforts to free him were “likely to facilitate his absconding from the United States.”

Smirnov is charged with falsely telling his FBI handler that executives from the Ukrainian energy company Burisma had paid President Biden and Hunter Biden $5 million each around 2015. The claim became central to the Republican impeachment inquiry of President Biden in Congress.

In urging the judge to keep him in jail, prosecutors revealed Smirnov has reported to the FBI having extensive contact with officials associated with Russian intelligence, and claimed that such officials were involved in passing a story to him about Hunter Biden. Prosecutors said Smirnov had been planning to travel overseas to multiple countries days after his Feb. 14 arrest where he said he was meeting with foreign intelligence contacts.

Smirnov, who holds dual Israeli-U.S. citizenship, is charged by the same Justice Department special counsel who has separately filed gun and tax charges against Hunter Biden.

Smirnov has not entered a plea to the charges, but his lawyers have said they look forward to defending him at trial. Defense attorneys have said in pushing for his release that he has no criminal history and has strong ties to the United States, including a longtime significant other who lives in Las Vegas.

In his ruling last week releasing Smirnov on GPS monitoring, U.S. Magistrate Judge Daniel Albregts in Las Vegas said he was concerned about his access to what prosecutors estimate is $6 million in funds, but noted that federal guidelines required him to fashion “the least restrictive conditions” ahead of his trial.

Smirnov was re-arrested on Thursday morning while meeting with his lawyers at their offices in downtown Las Vegas.

In an emergency petition with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Smirnov’s lawyers said Wright did not have the authority to order Smirnov to be taken back into custody. The defense also criticized what it described as “biased and prejudicial statements” from Wright insinuating that Smirnov’s lawyers were acting improperly by advocating for his release.

The appeals court on Sunday evening denied Smirnov’s emergency petition, refusing to block Monday’s hearing or assign the case to a different judge.

Smirnov had been an informant for more than a decade when he made the explosive allegations about the Bidens in June 2020, after “expressing bias” about Joe Biden as a presidential candidate, prosecutors said. Smirnov had only routine business dealings with Burisma starting in 2017, according to court documents. No evidence has emerged that Joe Biden acted corruptly or accepted bribes in his current role or previous office as vice president.

While his identity wasn’t publicly known before the indictment, Smirnov’s claims have played a major part in the Republican effort in Congress to investigate the president and his family, and helped spark what is now a House impeachment inquiry into Biden. Republicans pursuing investigations of the Bidens demanded the FBI release the unredacted form documenting the unverified allegations, though they acknowledged they couldn’t confirm if they were true.

Private US Lunar Lander Will Stop Working Tuesday 

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A private U.S. lunar lander is expected to stop working Tuesday, its mission cut short after landing sideways near the south pole of the moon.

Intuitive Machines, the Houston company that built and flew the spacecraft, said Monday it will continue to collect data until sunlight no longer shines on the solar panels. Based on the position of Earth and the moon, officials expect that to happen Tuesday morning. That’s two to three days short of the week or so that NASA and other customers had been counting on.

The lander, named Odysseus, is the first U.S. spacecraft to land on the moon in more than 50 years, carrying experiments for NASA, the main sponsor. But it came in too fast last Thursday and the foot of one of its six legs caught on the surface, causing it to tumble over, according to company officials.

Based on photos from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter flying overhead, Odysseus landed within 1.5 kilometers of its intended target near the Malapert A crater, just 300 kilometers from the moon’s south pole.

The LRO photos from 90 kilometers up are the only ones showing the lander on the surface, but as little more than a spot in the grainy images. A camera-ejecting experiment by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, to capture images of the lander as they both descended, was called off shortly before touchdown because of a last-minute navigation issue.

According to NASA, the lander ended up in a small, degraded crater with a 12-degree slope. That’s the closest a spacecraft has ever come to the south pole, an area of interest because of suspected frozen water in the permanently shadowed craters there.

NASA, which plans to land astronauts in this region in the next few years, paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to deliver six experiments to the surface. Other customers also had items on board.

Instead of landing upright, the 4.3-meter Odysseus came down on its side, hampering communication with Earth. Some antennas were covered up by the toppled lander, and the ones still exposed ended up near the ground, resulting in spotty communications. The solar panels also ended up much closer to the surface than anticipated, less than ideal in the hilly terrain. Even under the best of circumstances, Odysseus only had a week to operate on the surface before the long lunar night set in.

Since the 1960s, only the U.S., Russia, China, India and Japan have successfully pulled off moon landings, and only the U.S. with crews. Japan’s lander ended up on the wrong side, too, just last month.

Despite its slanted landing, Intuitive Machines became the first private business to join the elite group. Another U.S. company, Astrobotic Technology, gave it a try last month, but didn’t make it to the moon because of a fuel leak.

Intuitive Machines almost failed, too. Ground teams did not turn on the switch for the lander’s navigating lasers before the Feb. 15 liftoff from Florida. The oversight was not discovered until Odysseus was circling the moon, forcing flight controllers to rely on a NASA laser-navigating device that was on board merely as an experiment.

As it turned out, NASA’s test lasers guided Odysseus to a close to bull’s-eye landing, resulting in the first moon landing by a U.S. spacecraft since the Apollo program.

Twelve Apollo astronauts walked on the moon from 1969 through 1972. While NASA went on to put an occasional satellite around the moon, the U.S. did not launch another moon-landing mission until last month. Astrobotic’s failed flight was the first under NASA’s program to promote commercial deliveries to the moon.

Both Intuitive Machines and Astrobotic hold NASA contracts for more moon landings.

Dragons and Dancers Parade Through Manhattan’s Chinatown for Lunar New Year

New York — Dragons took a starring role at the Lunar New Year parade in Manhattan’s historic Chinatown on Sunday — it’s the Year of the Dragon, after all — as hundreds of revelers filled the cold clear air with the sound of drums, cymbals and puffs of confetti.

Lions and red lanterns were interspersed with around a dozen groups displaying traditional dragon puppets, which stretched up to 20 meters (65 feet) long, in interconnected segments held by up to 11 people walking beneath.

Two people also held up a giant golden picture frame with the Chinese character for “Dragon” on a red background.

Other staples of the parade included waves of red lanterns, a file of classic cars, as well as formations by local civic organizations, businesses, New York City agencies, and politicians. Many marchers yelled “Happy New Year” in English, mixing in traditional greetings in Mandarin and Cantonese wishing financial prosperity.

Asian communities across the world started ringing in the Lunar New Year on Feb 10, celebrating the Year of the Dragon in the Chinese zodiac. Fireworks, parades and other Lunar New Year rituals are centered around removing bad luck and welcoming prosperity.

In New York, there have already been major celebrations in larger Chinese immigrant enclaves in Queens and Brooklyn. While the symbolic new lunar cycle ended earlier this week with the full moon, Manhattan’s parade was scheduled for the weekend.

‘Past Lives,’ ‘American Fiction’ And ‘The Holdovers’ Are Big Winners at Independent Spirit Awards

Biden, Utah’s Governor Call for Less Bitterness, More Bipartisanship in Politics

Washington — President Joe Biden and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox disagree on many issues but they were united Saturday in calling for less bitterness in politics and more bipartisanship.

“Politics has gotten too personally bitter,” said Biden, who has practiced politics since he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972. “It’s just not like it was.” The Democratic president commented while delivering a toast to the nation’s governors and their spouses at a black-tie White House dinner in their honor.

Biden said what makes him “feel good” about hosting the governors is “we have a tradition of doing things together. We fight like hell, we make sure that we get our points across. At the end of the day, we know who we work for. The objective is to get things done.”

Cox, a Republican and chairman of the National Governors Association, preceded Biden to the lectern beneath an imposing portrait of Abraham Lincoln above the fireplace in the State Dining Room.

The Utah governor said the association “harkens back to another time, another era, when we did work together across partisan lines, when there was no political danger in appearing with someone from the other side of the aisle and we have to keep this, we have to maintain this, we cannot lose this,” he said.

Cox leads an initiative called “Disagree Better” that aims to reduce divisiveness. He had joked earlier in the program that he and Biden might be committing “mutually assured destruction” by appearing together at the White House since they’re both up for reelection this year.

He told Biden that as state chief executives, governors “know just a very little bit of the incredible burden that weighs on your shoulders. We can’t imagine what it must be like, the decisions that you have to make, but we feel a small modicum of that pressure and so, tonight, we honor you.”

Biden said he remembered when lawmakers would argue by day and break bread together at night. He is currently embroiled in stalemates with the Republican-controlled House over immigration policy, government funding and aid for Ukraine and Israel.

Cox went on to say that his parents taught him to pray for the leader of the country.

“Mr. President, I want you to know that our family prays for you and your family every night,” he said. “We pray that you will be successful because if you are successful that means that United States of America is successful and, tonight, we are always Americans first, so thank you.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat who is the association’s vice chairman, also offered a toast.

“We have a lot more in common and a lot more that brings us together as Americans for love of country and love of the people of our country,” he said.

Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, were among Cabinet secretaries and White House officials who sat among the governors. The group included North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who in December ended his bid to become the Republican presidential nominee and challenge Biden.

Guests dined on house-made burrata cheese, an entree choice of beef braciole or cod almandine and lemon meringue tart with limoncello ice cream for dessert.

After dinner, the program moved to the East Room for a performance by country singer Trisha Yearwood.

The governors, in Washington for their annual winter meeting, heard from Biden and Harris on Friday during a separate session at the White House.

‘One Love’ Gets More Box Office Love, No. 1 for Second Week

Los Angeles — For a second straight week, biopic “ Bob Marley: One Love” continues to exceed expectations by claiming the No. 1 spot at the box office, overcoming two debut films and Sony’s “Madame Web” that’s still producing subpar numbers.

The Paramount film starring Kingsley Ben-Adir pulled in $13.5 million during its second week of release. The project, which was produced for about $70 million, already eclipsed that mark, grossing nearly $72 million domestically in North America.

It’s an impressive achievement for the Reinaldo Marcus Green-directed Marley’s musical biopic that’s focused on the Rastafarian legend’s story during the making of his 1977 album “Exodus” while leading up to his impactful concert in his native Jamaica.

“Some of his greatest hits came out nearly 50 years ago, but his music still resonates through this film,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for data firm Comscore.

“One Love” drew nearly $2 million more than “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba – To the Hashira Training” which placed No. 2. The latest installment in the Japanese anime series from Crunchyroll and Sony debuted with $11.7 million.

“Demon Slayer” scored the impressive opening number from only 1,949 locations — far less than “One Love” with 3,597 and 3,020 for “ Ordinary Angels ” — a faith-based Lionsgate film starring Hilary Swank that placed third at the box office with an estimated $6.5 million.

“There might not be any huge blockbuster films recently, but there some real gems out there for moviegoers to see,” Dergarabedian said.

All three of those films outperformed better than “Madame Web,” which has struggled to find its footing after the superhero movie flopped last week. It was thought the Spider-Man spinoff would draw strong numbers — especially with Dakota Johnson starring as the film’s lead Marvel character.

But so far, it hasn’t lived up to the hype, producing just $6 million in its second week and grossing a little more than a disappointing $35 million.

After its 10th weekend, Universal’s animated “Migration” rounded out the top five with $3 million, bringing its domestic total to $120 million. “Argylle” placed sixth with $2.8 million barely outpacing “Wonka,” which reeled in $2.5 million. Paul King’s musical starring Timothee Chalamet as a young Willy Wonka has grossed more than $214 million in 11 weeks.

The Ethan Coen-directed “Drive-Away Dolls” debuted eighth with $2.4 million ahead of “The Beekeeper” and “The Chosen” season four, a Christian series focused on Jesus Christ.

Dergarabedian called this past week a slow one. But next week, he expects it’ll pick up greatly with the highly anticipated “Dune: Part Two” making its long-waited debut, which should end the top spot reign by “One Love.”

“It’s the calm before the sandstorm,” he said.

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Comscore. Final domestic figures will be released Monday.

  1. “Bob Marley: One Love,” $13.5 million.

  2. “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu No Yaiba – To the Hashira Training,” $11.5 million.

  3. “Ordinary Angels,” $6.5 million.

  4. “Madame Web,” $6 million.

  5. “Migration,” $3 million.

  6. “Argylle,” $2.8 million.

  7. “Wonka,” $2.5 million.

  8. “Drive-Away Dolls,” $2.4 million.

  9. “The Beekeeper,” $1.9 million.

  10. “The Chosen,” Episodes 4-6, $1.7 million.

Consumers Pushing Back Against Price Increases — And Winning

Washington — Inflation has changed the way many Americans shop. Now, those changes in consumer habits are helping bring down inflation.

Fed up with prices that remain about 19%, on average, above where they were before the pandemic, consumers are fighting back. In grocery stores, they’re shifting away from name brands to store-brand items, switching to discount stores or simply buying fewer items like snacks or gourmet foods.

More Americans are buying used cars, too, rather than new, forcing some dealers to provide discounts on new cars again. But the growing consumer pushback to what critics condemn as price-gouging has been most evident with food as well as with consumer goods like paper towels and napkins.

In recent months, consumer resistance has led large food companies to respond by sharply slowing their price increases from the peaks of the past three years. This doesn’t mean grocery prices will fall back to their levels of a few years ago, though with some items, including eggs, apples and milk, prices are below their peaks. But the milder increases in food prices should help further cool overall inflation, which is down sharply from a peak of 9.1% in 2022 to 3.1%.

Public frustration with prices has become a central issue in President Joe Biden’s bid for re-election. Polls show that despite the dramatic decline in inflation, many consumers are unhappy that prices remain so much higher than they were before inflation began accelerating in 2021.

Biden has echoed the criticism of many left-leaning economists that corporations jacked up their prices more than was needed to cover their own higher costs, allowing themselves to boost their profits. The White House has also attacked “shrinkflation,” whereby a company, rather than raising the price of a product, instead shrinks the amount inside the package. In a video released on Super Bowl Sunday, Biden denounced shrinkflation as a “rip-off.”

Consumer pushback against high prices suggests to many economists that inflation should further ease. That would make this bout of inflation markedly different from the debilitating price spikes of the 1970s and early 1980s, which took longer to defeat. When high inflation persists, consumers often develop an inflationary psychology: Ever-rising prices lead them to accelerate their purchases before costs rise further, a trend that can itself perpetuate inflation.

“That was the fear — that everybody would tolerate higher prices,” said Gregory Daco, chief economist at EY, a consulting firm, who notes that it hasn’t happened. “I don’t think we’ve moved into a high inflation regime.”

Instead, this time many consumers have reacted like Stuart Dryden, a commercial underwriter at a bank who lives in Arlington, Virginia. On a recent trip to his regular grocery store, Dryden, 37, pointed out big price disparities between Kraft Heinz-branded products and their store-label competitors, which he now favors.

Dryden, for example, loves cream cheese and bagels. A 12-ounce tub of Kraft’s Philadelphia cream cheese costs $6.69. The store brand, he noted, is just $3.19.

A 24-pack of Kraft single cheese slices is $7.69; the store label, $2.99. And a 32-ounce Heinz ketchup bottle is $6.29, while the alternative is just $1.69. Similar gaps existed with mac-and-cheese and shredded cheese products.

“Just those five products together already cost nearly $30,” Dryden said. The alternatives were less than half that, he calculated, at about $13.

“I’ve been trying private-label options, and the quality is the same and it’s almost a no-brainer to switch from the products I used to buy a ton of to just the private label,” Dryden said.

Alex Abraham, a spokesman for Kraft Heinz, said that its costs rose 3% in the final three months of last year but that the company raised its own prices only 1%.

“We are doing everything possible to find efficiencies in our factories and other parts of our business to offset and mitigate further price increases,” Abraham said.

Last week, Kraft Heinz said sales fell in the final three months of last year as more consumers traded down to cheaper brands.

Dryden has taken other steps to save money: A year ago, he moved into a new apartment after his previous landlord jacked up his rent by about 50%. His former apartment had been next to a relatively pricey grocery store, Whole Foods. Now, he shops at a nearby Amazon Fresh and has started visiting the discount grocer Aldi every couple of weeks.

Samuel Rines, an investment strategist at Corbu, says that PepsiCo, Kimberly-Clark, Procter & Gamble and many other consumer food and packaged goods companies exploited the rise in input costs stemming from supply-chain disruptions and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to dramatically raise their prices — and increase their profits — in 2021 and 2022.

A contributing factor was that millions of Americans enjoyed solid wage gains and received stimulus checks and other government aid, making it easier for them to pay the higher prices.

Still, some decried the phenomenon as “greedflation.” And in a March 2023 research paper, the economist Isabella Weber at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, referred to it as “seller’s inflation.”

Yet beginning late last year, many of the same companies discovered that the strategy was no longer working. Most consumers have now long since spent the savings they built up during the pandemic.

Lower-income consumers, in particular, are running up credit card debt and falling behind on their payments. Americans overall are spending more cautiously. Daco notes that overall sales during the holiday shopping season were up just 4% — and most of it reflected higher prices rather than consumers actually buying more things.

As an example, Rines points to Unilever, which makes, among other items, Hellman’s mayonnaise, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and Dove soaps. Unilever jacked up its prices 13.3% on average across its brands in 2022. Its sales volume fell 3.6% that year. In response, it raised prices just 2.8% last year; sales rose 1.8%.

“We’re beginning to see the consumer no longer willing to take the higher pricing,” Rines said. “So companies were beginning to get a little bit more skeptical of their ability to just have price be the driver of their revenues. They had to have those volumes come back, and the consumer wasn’t reacting in a way that they were pleased with.”

Unilever itself recently attributed poor sales performance in Europe to “share losses to private labels.”

Other businesses have noticed, too. After their sales fell in the final three months of last year, PepsiCo executives signaled that this year they would rein in price increases and focus more on boosting sales.

“In 2024, we see … normalization of the cost, normalization of inflation,” CEO Ramon Laguarta said. “So we see everything trending back to our long-term” pricing trends.

Jeffrey Harmening, CEO of General Mills, which makes Cheerios, Chex Cereal, Progresso soups and dozens of other brands, has acknowledged that his customers are increasingly seeking bargains.

And McDonald’s executives have said that consumers with incomes below $45,000 are visiting less and spending less when they do visit and say the company plans to highlight its lower-priced items.

“Consumers are more wary — and weary — of pricing, and we’re going to continue to be consumer-led in our pricing decisions,” Ian Borden, the company’s chief financial officer, told investors.

Officials at the Federal Reserve, the nation’s primary inflation-fighting institution, have cited consumers’ growing reluctance to pay high prices as a key reason why they expect inflation to fall steadily back to their 2% annual target.

“Firms are telling us that price sensitivity is very much higher now,” Mary Daly, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and a member of the Fed’s interest-rate setting committee, said last week. “Consumers don’t want to purchase unless they’re seeing a 10% discount. … This is a serious improvement in the role that consumers play in bridling inflation.”

Surveys by the Fed’s regional banks have found that companies across all industries expect to impose smaller price increases this year. The New York Fed says companies in its region plan to raise prices an average of about 3% this year, down from about 5% in 2023 and as much as 7% to 9% in 2022.

Such trends suggest that companies were well on their way to slowing their price hikes before Biden’s most recent attacks on price gouging.

Claudia Sahm, founder of SAHM Consulting and a former Fed economist, said, “consumers are more powerful than President Biden.”

Productivity Surge Helps Explain US Economy’s Surprising Resilience 

Washington — Trying to keep up with customer demand, Batesville Tool & Die began seeking 70 people to hire last year. It wasn’t easy. Attracting factory workers to a community of 7,300 in the Indiana countryside was a tough sell, especially having to compete with big-name manufacturers nearby like Honda and Cummins Engine. 

Job seekers were scarce. 

“You could count on one hand how many people in the town were unemployed,” said Jody Fledderman, the CEO. “It was just crazy.” 

Batesville Tool & Die managed to fill just 40 of its vacancies. 

Enter the robots. The company invested in machines that could mimic human workers and in vision systems, which helped its robots “see” what they were doing. 

The Batesville experience has been replicated countlessly across the United States the past couple of years. Worker shortages have led many companies to invest in machines. They’ve also been training the workers they do have to use advanced technology so they can produce more with less. 

The result has been an unexpected productivity boom, which helps explain a great economic mystery: How has the world’s largest economy stayed so healthy, with brisk growth and low unemployment, despite brutally high interest rates that are intended to tame inflation but that typically cause a recession? 

To economists, strong productivity growth provides an almost magical elixir. When companies roll out more efficient technology, their workers can become more productive: They increase their output per hour. A result is that companies can often boost profits and raise pay without having to jack up prices. Inflation can remain in check. 

The Fed’s aggressive streak of rate hikes — 11 of them starting in March 2022 — managed to bring inflation from a four-decade high of 9.1% to 3.1%. But, to the surprise to the economists who’d forecast a recession, the higher borrowing costs have caused little economic hardship. 

Perhaps the likeliest explanation is the greater efficiencies that companies like Batesville Tool & Die have managed to achieve. Before productivity began its resurgent growth last year, a rule of thumb was that average hourly pay could rise no more than 3.5% annually for inflation to stay within the Fed’s 2% target. That would mean that today’s roughly 4% average annual pay growth would have to shrink. Higher productivity means there’s now more leeway for wage growth to stay elevated without igniting inflation. 

The productivity boom marks a shift from the pre-pandemic years, when annual productivity growth averaged a tepid 1.5%. Everything changed as the economy rocketed out of the 2020 pandemic recession with unexpected vigor, and businesses struggled to re-hire the many workers they had shed. 

The resulting worker shortage sent wages surging. Inflation jumped, too, as factories and ports buckled under the strain of rising consumer orders. 

Desperate, many companies turned to automation. The efficiency payoff began to arrive almost a year ago. Labor productivity rose at a 3.6% annual pace from last April through June, 4.9% from July through September and 3.2% from October through December. 

At Reata Engineering & Machine Works, “efficiency was kind of forced on us,” CEO Grady Cope said. With the job market roaring, the company, based in Englewood, Colorado, couldn’t hire fast enough. Meantime, its customers were starting to balk at paying higher prices. 

So Reata installed robots and other technology. Software allowed it to automate the delivery of price quotes to customers. That process used to require two weeks. Now, it can be done in 24 hours. 

Many economists and business people say they’re hopeful that the productivity boom can continue. Artificial intelligence, they note, is only beginning to penetrate factory floors, warehouses, stores and offices and could accelerate efficiency gains. 

Automation raises fears that machines will replace human workers, killing jobs. Some workers supplanted by robots do often struggle to find new work and end up settling for lower pay. 

Yet history suggests that in the long run, technological improvements actually create more jobs than they destroy. People are needed to build, upgrade, repair and operate sophisticated machines. Some displaced workers are trained to shift into such jobs. And that transition is likely to be eased this time by the retirement of the vast baby boom generation, which is causing labor shortages. 

Some of today’s productivity gains may be coming not just from advanced technology but also from more satisfied workers. The tight labor markets of the past three years allowed Americans to change jobs and find others that pay better and make them happier and more productive. 

Justin Thompson, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, felt burned out by his job as a police officer, with its 16-hour workdays .”I was literally running myself into the ground,” he said. 

Thompson’s wife saw a job posting for operations manager at a charter airline. Even without airline experience, his wife felt he could use skills he gains as a Marine Corps infantryman — handling logistics for missions — during tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

She was right. Omni Air International hired him in 2019. 

Thompson, 43, loves the new job, which allows him to work from home when he’s not traveling. And his Marine experience — which included developing ways to improve efficiency — has proved invaluable. 

Other workers have switched from low-skill jobs to those that allow them to be more productive. 

At Reata Engineering, staffers were trained to use new sophisticated equipment. 

“The whole point is not to lay people off,” said Cope, the CEO of Reata Engineering. “The point is to make people do jobs that are more interesting” — and pay better, too. 

Former President Trump Beats Former UN Ambassador Haley in Her State

Former US President Donald Trump won the Republican Presidential Primary in the Southern state of South Carolina on Saturday, defeating former US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley in her home state. But Haley vowed to continue her campaign through Super Tuesday in early March, when a block of US states will have their say in who runs against President Joe Biden in November. VOA’s Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson has more.
Camera: Henry Hernandez and Ostap Yarysh

Republican Trying to Block Party From Paying Trump’s Legal Bills

COLUMBIA, S.C. — At least one member of the Republican National Committee is working to slow Donald Trump’s attempted takeover of the organization by pushing to keep the committee neutral until Trump is officially the presidential nominee and avoid picking up his legal bills.

Two draft resolutions are being circulated by Henry Barbour, a national committeeman from Mississippi, for consideration at the RNC’s upcoming March meeting in Houston. Barbour said support for the resolutions among RNC members is growing but he does not yet have the needed co-sponsors, and any resolutions would ultimately be nonbinding.

The effort comes after Trump last week publicly called to replace the RNC’s current leaders and install one of his senior campaign advisers and his daughter-in-law Lara Trump in top roles. Lara Trump suggested earlier in the week that GOP voters would support the committee paying her father-in-law’s legal bills as he faces a raft of criminal and civil indictments.

Trump senior campaign adviser Chris LaCivita, whom the former president wants to install as the party’s chief operating officer, told reporters Friday night that the RNC would not pay Trump’s legal bills.

In a statement on Saturday, LaCavita said “the primary is over and it is the RNC’s sole responsibility to defeat Joe Biden and win back the White House.”

“Efforts to delay that assist Joe Biden in the destruction of our nation,” he said. “Republicans cannot stand on the sidelines and allow this to happen.”

One of Barbour’s proposed resolutions says that the RNC and its leadership will stay neutral throughout the presidential primary and not take on additional staff from any of the active campaigns until a candidate has the needed delegates to be the nominee.

The second resolution says the organization will not pay the legal bills of any candidate for federal or state office but will instead focus its spending on efforts directly related to the 2024 election.

“The RNC has one job. That’s winning elections,” Barbour said. “I believe RNC funds should be spent solely on winning elections, on political expenses, not legal bills.”

The RNC was paying some of Trump’s legal bills for New York cases that started while he was president, The Washington Post reported. But current RNC Chairperson Ronna McDaniel said in November 2022 that the RNC would stop p

aying once Trump became a candidate again and started running for the 2024 presidential election.

Trump is spending millions on lawyers in civil cases and four criminal cases, but he also has legal debts that top half a billion dollars.

Former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who is Trump’s last major challenger in the GOP primary, said a family member or campaign manager should not be leading the RNC.

“I would hope that the people in the RNC know that they have a responsibility, a responsibility to put in people in the RNC who are going to look out in the best interest of all of the Republican Party, not just one person,” Haley said.

The resolutions were first reported by The Dispatch on Saturday. 

New York City Owl Flaco Dies After Crashing Into Building

NEW YORK — Tributes poured in Saturday for Flaco, the beloved Eurasian eagle-owl that became a feel-good New York story after escaping its Central Park Zoo enclosure and flying free around Manhattan.

Flaco was found dead on a New York City sidewalk Friday night after apparently flying into a building. It was a heartbreaking end for the birders who documented the owl’s daily movements and the legions of admirers who eagerly followed along.

“Everybody feels the same, they’re devastated,” said Nicole Blair, a New York City artist who devoted much of her feed on the X platform to photos and memes featuring the celebrity owl with checkerboard black and brown feathers and round sunset-hued eyes.

Staff from the Wild Bird Fund, a wildlife rehabilitation center, declared Flaco dead shortly after the collision. A necropsy was expected Saturday.

Flaco was freed from his cage at the zoo a little over a year ago by a vandal who breached a waist-high fence and cut a hole through a steel mesh cage. The owl had arrived at the zoo as a fledgling 13 years earlier.

Flaco sightings soon became sport. The owl spent his days perched on tree branches, fence posts and fire escapes and nights hooting atop water towers and preying on the city’s abundant rats.

Like a true celebrity, the owl appeared on murals and merchandise. A likeness occupied a spot on Blair’s New York City-themed Christmas tree, right next to “Pizza Rat,” the infamous rodent seen in a YouTube clip dragging a slice down a subway stairwell.

“I got to see him on my birthday,” Blair said of her encounter with Flaco in Central Park in the fall. “It was kind of an unbelievable situation, and I’m like, this is the best birthday present ever.”

But she and others worried when Flaco ventured beyond the park into more urban sections of Manhattan, fearing the owl would ingest a poisoned rat or encounter other dangers.

“The vandal who damaged Flaco’s exhibit jeopardized the safety of the bird and is ultimately responsible for his death,” the zoo said in a statement Friday. “We are still hopeful that the NYPD which is investigating the vandalism will ultimately make an arrest.”

Flaco fans shared suggestions Saturday for a permanent bronze statue overlooking New York City. One requested that the owl’s remains be buried in Central Park.

“Flaco the owl was, in many ways, a typical New Yorker — fiercely independent, constantly exploring, finding ways to survive ever-changing challenges,” read a post on the X platform, reflecting a common sentiment. “He will be missed.”

David Barrett, who runs the Manhattan Bird Alert account, suggested a temporary memorial at the bird’s favorite oak tree in the park.

There, he wrote in a post, fellow birders could “lay flowers, leave a note, or just be with others who loved Flaco.” 

Chief US Gun Laws Enforcer Fears Americans Becoming Numb to Violence

LEWISTON, MAINE — The head of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says he fears that a drumbeat of mass shootings and other gun violence across the United States could make Americans numb to the bloodshed, fostering apathy to finding solutions rather than galvanizing communities to act.

Director Steve Dettelbach’s comments to The Associated Press came after he met this past week with family members of some of the 18 people killed in October at a bowling alley and a bar in Lewiston, Maine, by a U.S. Army reservist who later took his own life.

He said people must not accept that gun violence is a prevalent part of American life.

“It seems to me that things that we used to sort of consider memorable, life-altering, shocking events that you might think about and talk about for months or years to come now are happening with seeming frequency that makes it so that we sort of think, “That’s just the one that happened this week,'” he said. “If we come to sort of accept that, that’s a huge hurdle in addressing the problem.”

Dettelbach, whose agency is responsible for enforcing the nation’s gun laws, met for nearly two hours at Central Maine Community College with relatives of those killed and survivors of the Lewiston shooting. An AP reporter also attended, along with other law enforcement officials.

Some expressed frustration about missed red flags and questioned why the gunman was able to get the weapon he used. Dettelbach told his audience that they can be a powerful catalyst for change.

“I’m sorry that we have to be in a place where we have to have these horrible tragedies happen for people to pay attention, but they have to pay attention,” Dettelbach said. “I can go around and talk, but your voices are very important and powerful voices. So, if you choose to use them, you should understand that it makes a difference. It really makes a difference.”

Those who met with Dettelbach included members of Maine’s close-knit community of deaf and hard of hearing people, which lost four people in the October 25 shooting at a bowling alley and bar.

Megan Vozzella, whose husband, Stephen, was killed, told Dettelbach through an ASL interpreter that the shooting underscores the need for law enforcement to improve communications with members of the deaf community. She said they felt out of the loop after the shooting.

“Nothing we do at this point will bring back my husband and the other victims,” Vozzella said in an interview after the meeting. “It hurts my heart to talk about this and so learning more every day about this, my only hope is that this can improve for the future.”

There are questions about why neither local law enforcement nor the military intervened to take away weapons from the shooter, Robert Card, despite his deteriorating mental health. In police body cam video released to the media this month, Card told New York troopers before his hospitalization last summer that fellow soldiers were worried about him because he was “gonna friggin’ do something.”

Dettelbach, in the AP interview, declined to comment on the specifics of Card’s case, which an independent commission in Maine is investigating. But he said it is clear that the nation needs to make it harder for people “that everyone agrees should not have firearms, who the law says are not entitled to have firearms, to get them because it’s too easy to get them now.”

Dettelbach’s conversation with victims was part of a tour in New England that also included meetings with law enforcement and others to discuss ways to tackle gun violence. Dettelbach, who has expressed support for universal background checks and banning so-called assault weapons, said he regularly meets with those affected by gun violence.

“Each one of these shootings is a tragedy that takes lives and changes other lives forever. And that’s whether it makes the news or not, whether it’s the suicide of a child or a drive-by in the city, whether it’s a massacre at a parade, a spray bullets on a subway, whether it’s a man who kills his family, murders police” or a student with a rifle “shooting up their school,” he said during a speech at Dartmouth College on Wednesday.

“I submit to you that it is our patriotic duty as Americans to respond, to think of these people, to have their backs, to view this tough news as a call to action.”

Trump Enters South Carolina’s Republican Primary Looking to Embarrass Haley

CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA — Former U.S. President Donald Trump is looking to win his fourth straight state primary Saturday over Nikki Haley in South Carolina, aiming to hand a home-state embarrassment to his last remaining major rival for the Republican nomination.

Trump went into the primary with a huge polling lead and the backing of the state’s top Republicans, including U.S. Senator Tim Scott, a former rival in the race. Haley, who served as United Nations ambassador under Trump, has spent weeks crisscrossing the state that twice elected her governor warning that the dominant front-runner, who is 77 and faces four indictments, is too old and distracted to be president again.

In all but one primary since 1980, the Republican winner in South Carolina has gone on to be the party’s nominee. But Haley has repeatedly vowed to carry on if she loses her home state, even as Trump positions himself for a likely general election rematch against President Joe Biden.

Trump’s backers, including those who previously supported Haley during her time as governor, seemed confident that the former president would have a solid victory Saturday.

“I did support her when she was governor. She’s done some good things,” Davis Paul, 36, said as he waited for Trump at a recent rally in Conway. “But I just don’t think she’s ready to tackle a candidate like Trump. I don’t think many people can.”

Trump has swept into the state for a handful of large rallies in-between fundraisers and events in other states, including Michigan, which holds its GOP primary Tuesday.

He has drawn much larger crowds and campaigned with Gov. Henry McMaster, who succeeded Haley, and Scott, who was elevated to the Senate by Haley.

Speaking Friday in Rock Hill, Trump accused Haley of staying in the race to hurt him at the behest of Democratic donors.

“All she’s trying to do is inflict pain on us so they can win in November,” he said. “We’re not going to let that happen.”

In some of those rallies, Trump has made comments that handed Haley more fodder for her stump speeches, such as his Feb. 10 questioning of why her husband — currently on a South Carolina Army National Guard deployment to Africa — hadn’t been campaigning alongside her. Haley turned that point into an argument that the front-runner doesn’t respect servicemembers and their families, long a criticism that has followed Trump going back to his suggesting the late Sen. John McCain, a prisoner of war in Vietnam, wasn’t a hero because he was captured.

That same night, Trump asserted that he would encourage countries like Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” against NATO member countries who failed to meet the transatlantic alliance’s defense spending targets. Haley has been holding out that moment as evidence that Trump is too volatile and “getting weak in the knees when it comes to Russia.”

After one of Haley’s events, Terry Sullivan, a U.S. Navy veteran who lives in Hopkins, said he had planned to support Trump but changed his mind after hearing Haley’s critique of his NATO comments.

“One country can say whatever it wants, but when you have an agreement, among other nations, we should join the agreements of other nations, not just off on our own,” Sullivan said. “After listening to Nikki, I think I’m a Nikki supporter now.”

Haley has made an indirect appeal to Democrats who in large numbers sat out their own presidential primary earlier this month, adding into her stump speech a line that “anybody can vote in this primary as long as they didn’t vote in the February 3 Democrat primary.”

Some of those voters have been showing up at her events, saying that although they planned to vote for Biden in the general election, they planned to cross over to the GOP primary Saturday to oppose Trump now.

In any other campaign cycle, a home state loss might be detrimental to a campaign. In 2016, Sen. Marco Rubio dropped out shortly after losing Florida in a blowout to Trump, after his campaign argued the political winds would shift in his favor once the campaign moved to his home state.

And Haley’s campaign can’t name a state in which they feel she will be victorious over Trump.

But in a speech this week in Greenville, Haley said she would stay in the campaign “until the last person votes,” arguing that those whose contests come after the early primaries and caucuses deserved the right to have a choice between candidates.

Haley also used that speech — which many had assumed was an announcement she was shuttering her campaign — to argue that she feels “no need to kiss the ring,” as others had, possibly with prospects of serving as Trump’s running mate in mind.

“I have no fear of Trump’s retribution,” Haley reiterated. “I’m not looking for anything from him. My own political future is of zero concern.”

Anthropologist Challenges Return of Native American Remains

WASHINGTON — The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires federally funded institutions to catalogue, report and return Native American ancestral remains and funerary objects.

With exemptions for cases in which institutions can prove legal ownership, the 33-year-old law known as NAGPRA was updated in January with requirements that researchers obtain tribal or lineal descendants’ consent before exhibiting or conducting research on human remains and related cultural items.

While many Indigenous leaders are encouraged by stronger provisions in the law, anthropologist Elizabeth Weiss says the whole thing should be scrapped because repatriating human remains hinders scientific research.

“A research collection’s ability to inform us never, never dies, because you have new hypotheses that can be used to test, and you also have to retest old hypotheses when new methods develop,” the San Jose State University professor told VOA.

What the law says

Weiss argues that NAGPRA undermines the separation of church and state because it gives traditional Native American religious leaders a say over whether and to whom human remains will be returned.

“NAGPRA was passed with the requirement that two of its [seven] committee members must be traditional Indian religious leaders,” she said. “Further, it allows only one type of religious evidence to be used in repatriation — and that’s Native American creationism.”

Weiss says the law has led to institutional guidelines for the handling of remains based on what she calls tribal “mythology,” including a provision at her university that blocked people who are menstruating from handling skeletal remains.

“And the more you allow the acceptance of this kind of superstitious pseudo-religion to creep in, the more widespread it becomes,” she says.

In November 2021, San Jose State’s Anthropology Department issued guidelines on the handling of Native American ancestral remains which read, “Menstruating personnel will not be permitted to handle ancestors.”

The university rescinded that in April 2022.

Long history of grave robbing

Niiyokamigaabaw Deondre Smiles, a citizen of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, is an Indigenous geographer at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada. He says Weiss is misguided.

“On its face, she makes what looks to be [a] convincing and appealing argument that scientists are working for the betterment of humankind and that Indigenous opposition is based in which she terms ‘pseudo-science’ and stifling the process,” he said. “What she doesn’t really engage with is a very long history of grave robbing of Indigenous burial sites in the name of science.”

Smiles gave the example of mid-19th Century “craniologist” Samuel Morton who amassed and measured hundreds of human skulls to support his belief in five races, each created separately, whose cranial size determined their place in the racial hierarchy.

“In their mental character, the Americans are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge,” he wrote in his 1839 book, “Crania Americana.”

Smiles says, “There’s been a really long history of people treating Indigenous remains as just simply objects of curiosity, as things that are made to be studied, rather than belonging to human beings once upon a time.”

NAGPRA previously allowed institutions to retain artifacts they deemed “culturally unidentifiable.” That provision has now been removed, and tribal historians and religious leaders will now have a voice in determining where those items should go.

Attorney Shannon O’Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, heads the Association on American Indian Affairs, a nonprofit that helps tribes navigate NAGPRA processes.

“The law is very clear that institutions do not own Native bodies or cultural items unless they can prove a right of possession,” she said. “If some tribes ask for certain accommodations and protocols, that’s because they’re the true owners.”

O’Loughlin stresses that NAGPRA does not prohibit research or display of Native remains.

“It simply requires consent. The whole point of the law is to bring tribes to the table where they’ve never been allowed before and to educate museums about items in their collections and why they are significant.”

White House, Tribes Hail ‘Historic’ Deal to Restore Pacific NW Salmon Runs

washington — The Biden administration, leaders of four Columbia River Basin tribes and the governors of Oregon and Washington celebrated on Friday as they signed papers formally launching a $1 billion plan to help recover depleted salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest. 

The plan, announced in December, stopped short of calling for the removal of four controversial dams on the Snake River, as some environmental groups and tribal leaders have urged. But officials said it would boost clean energy production and help offset hydropower, transportation and other benefits provided by the dams should Congress ever agree to breach them. 

The plan brokered by the Biden administration pauses long-running litigation over federal dam operations and represents the most significant step yet toward eventually taking down the four Snake River dams. The plan will strengthen tribal clean energy projects and provide other benefits for tribes and other communities that depend on the Columbia Basin for agriculture, energy, recreation and transportation, the White House said. 

“Since time immemorial, the strength of the Yakama Nation and its people have come from the Columbia River, and from the fish, game, roots and berries it nourishes,” Yakama Nation Chairman Gerald Lewis said at a White House ceremony. 

“The Yakama Nation will always fight to protect and restore the salmon because, without the salmon, we cannot maintain the health of our people or our way of life,” Lewis said, adding that Columbia Basin salmon are dying from the impacts of human development. 

“Our fishers have empty nets and their homes have empty tables because historically the federal government has not done enough to mitigate these impacts,” he said. “We need a lot more clean energy, but we need to do development in a way that is socially just.” 

Lewis was among four tribal leaders who spoke at the hourlong ceremony at the White House complex, along with Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Oregon Governor Tina Kotek and an array of federal officials. 

The agreement, formally known as the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative, “deserves to be celebrated,” said Jonathan W. Smith, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation. 

The settlement “takes the interests of all the stakeholders in the Columbia Basin into account,” he said. “It lays out a pathway to restore salmon and steelhead to healthy and abundant levels and moves forward with the necessary green energy transition in a socially just and equitable way.” 

Corinne Sams of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation called the signing ceremony a historic moment, not just for the tribes, but also for the U.S. government “and all Americans in the Pacific Northwest. My heart is big today.” 

The Columbia River Basin, an area roughly the size of Texas, was once the world’s greatest salmon-producing river system, with at least 16 stocks of salmon and steelhead. Today, four are extinct and seven are listed under the Endangered Species Act. 

Dams are a main culprit behind the salmon’s decline, and federal fisheries scientists have concluded that breaching the dams in eastern Washington on the Snake River, the largest tributary of the Columbia, would be the best hope for recovering them, providing the fish with access to hundreds of miles of pristine habitat and spawning grounds in Idaho. 

Conservation groups sued the federal government more than two decades ago in an effort to save the fish. They have argued that the continued operation of the dams violates the Endangered Species Act as well as treaties dating to the mid-19th century ensuring the tribes’ right to harvest fish. 

Friday’s celebration did not include congressional Republicans who oppose dam breaching and have vowed to block it. 

Dams along the Columbia-Snake River system provide more than one-third of all hydropower capacity in the United States, said Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington Republican who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. In Washington state, hydropower accounts for 70% of electricity consumed. 

The Snake River dams “helped transform Eastern Washington into one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world,” including 40% of America’s wheat, Rodgers said in a statement. 

She denounced “secret negotiations” led by White House senior adviser and climate envoy John Podesta, saying he and other officials “worked behind closed doors with a select group of radical environmentalists to develop a secret package of actions and commitments” that advance “efforts to remove the four Lower Snake River dams.” 

Podesta and other speakers at the White House ceremony looked past those concerns, with few even mentioning the dams. 

“President Biden understands that the Columbia River is the lifeblood of the Pacific Northwest, for its culture, for its economy and for its people,” said Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. 

“The historic agreement is charting a new and exciting path to restore the river, provide for clean energy and live up to our responsibilities and obligations to tribal nations,” Mallory said. “I’m confident we will secure the vision … of securing a restored Columbia River Basin, one that is teeming with wild fish, prosperous to tribal nations, [with] affordable clean energy, a strong agricultural economy and an upgraded transportation and recreation system.”

Haley Seeks Key Win in Home State Against Front-Runner Trump

Georgetown, South Carolina — The two-person contest for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination comes to South Carolina on Saturday, where former governor and United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley is looking for her home state to deliver her first win of the election season over former President Donald Trump.

Polling shows Trump holds a strong lead over Haley, after securing wins in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary in January. A Suffolk University/USA Today poll of South Carolina voters conducted last week found that 63% of the state’s voters prefer the former president.

Earlier this week, Haley vowed to continue on to Super Tuesday, the primary day in early March when a diverse set of 15 states will vote for their choice of a Republican candidate to go up against President Joe Biden in the November general election.

But at a campaign event Friday, Donald Trump Jr. told reporters Haley’s vow was a calculated decision.

“It’s just political theater, but it’s the political theater designed to hurt Donald Trump and the Republican chances in November. She’s saying that she’s going to remain until Super Tuesday. I’m sure she will. She won’t win any states on Super Tuesday either,” he said.

Trump holds 63 delegates going into Saturday’s vote, while Haley holds 17. A candidate needs 1215 delegates to secure the nomination, with most of the delegates still to be awarded.

Haley told voters at a Georgetown, South Carolina, rally on Thursday that she is the better choice in the general election, arguing American voters are concerned about the age and abilities of both Trump and Biden.

“Are we really saying the best we can do is two guys in their 80s?” Haley said. “Because we need someone who can serve eight years uninterrupted, day and night, and focus on what’s going to get solutions for the American people.”

Haley is Trump’s only remaining rival for the nomination. Some voters who chose Trump in the last election said they are turning to Haley now as an alternative to the former president’s rhetoric.

“Nikki Haley is a lot less volatile than he is — he has a very volatile personality,” Kat Loftus, a voter from Georgetown, told VOA. “I think she would do a much better job of listening to people that are different from her and negotiating and getting things accomplished to unite our country.”

Loftus said border security and immigration are her top concerns this election year and Haley’s experience as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations would be useful as she negotiated with Mexico’s president on border security.

In her well-attended speech, Haley also argued Trump has harmed the global reputation of the United States with his support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Donald Trump is siding with a thug,” Haley said. “Half a million people have been wounded or killed because Putin invaded Ukraine. Donald Trump is siding with a dictator who kills his political opponents.”

Tee Miller, a South Carolina voter, agreed, saying the former president had his chance during his term.

“Everyone thinks he’s going to bring this change, but he had the opportunity before and didn’t really make the change. And he’s also brought on new baggage,” Miller said.

Flo Phillips did change her mind. She voted for Trump in the last election but said she is now voting for Haley.

“I can be proud of her when she’s talking. She’s not saying horrible things about everybody. She seems to be a real smart person,” Phillips told VOA.

Trump campaign focused on Biden

But Haley was barely mentioned Friday by Trump Jr. as he rallied voters in Charleston, South Carolina.

“We can get our country back to where it needs to be,” Trump Jr. told a small group of voters, alleging Biden is controlled by radical Leftists. “No one actually thinks that Joe Biden is coming up with policy, right?”

Rosie, a South Carolina voter who declined to provide her last name, agreed, saying that Biden has torn down democratic values during his term in office. She said she did not consider voting for Haley.

“She was on record saying that she would never run if Trump was running. So that’s just indicative of her flip flopping on what she says she’s going to do and then what she does. She’s proven that her track record is, ‘I’ll say what I need to get elected and then do the opposite,'” she told VOA.

“Nikki is a good lady,” South Carolina voter Todd, who declined to provide his last name, said he appreciated her leadership in 2015 when a racist gunmen killed eight people at the Charleston AME church. Todd, who described himself as a big fan of Trump Jr.’s political podcasts, said the timing of Haley candidacy wasn’t right. “With all that’s going on in our country, it’s just not the right time.”

Carolyn Corcoran, a voter and single mother worried about the rising cost of living, said Haley is too politically entrenched in Washington. She said she likes Trump because he puts people ahead of politics.

“The way they’re attacking Trump by using the law as a political weapon — it’s really heartbreaking for someone who protected people for years and enforced the laws the way they should be enforced,” said Corcoran, who retired from law enforcement after 30 years.

“To see our whole country, the attorneys general using the law to try to get at Trump, when he’s never done anything that anyone else hasn’t done. They just want to weaponize the law against him.”  

With Ukraine Aid in Limbo, Supporters Push for Fallback Options

washington — Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have begun laying the groundwork for a potential bid to sidestep Republican Speaker Mike Johnson and force a vote on a $95 billion security assistance package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, House aides said Friday. 

Representative Jim McGovern, the top Democrat on the House Rules Committee, filed legislation on February 15 that could be used as a vehicle for a discharge petition, a rarely used procedural tool that eventually could force a vote on the bill if at least 218 House members — a majority of the chamber’s 435 voting members — sign it. 

Under House rules, Ukraine backers could begin collecting signatures for the petition around March 1. 

Months after Democratic President Joe Biden asked Congress to approve more foreign security assistance, the Senate last week approved the package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan and to replenish U.S. weapons stocks by an overwhelming 70-30 vote. Twenty-two Republicans joined most Democrats in voting “aye.” 

But Johnson, a close ally of former Republican President Donald Trump who voted against assisting Ukraine before he became speaker, sent the House home for a two-week recess without bringing the measure up for a vote, leaving the aid in limbo as the war in Ukraine approached its second anniversary. 

Trump, the front-runner to be his party’s 2024 presidential nominee, has opposed aid to Kyiv. 

Johnson told a party meeting on February 14 that House Republicans would not rubber-stamp the Senate bill. Party leaders are considering writing new bills, amending the Senate legislation or dividing it into separate parts. 

House Democrats are also considering another, even rarer process, known as defeating the previous question, in which Ukraine backers could take control of the House floor before certain votes. 

The exact number needed is not certain, because it would require only a simple majority of members present and voting. 

So far, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries has said only that he is leaving every legislative option on the table.