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Meeks Elected as First Black House Foreign Affairs Chairman

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Representative Gregory Meeks (D-Queens) speaks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 5, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing/File Photo

By Patricia Zengerle

U.S. House of Representatives Democrats elected Greg Meeks on Thursday as the next chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, a position in which he is expected to work closely with President-elect Joe Biden’s administration on the Iran nuclear deal and other issues.

Meeks, 67, who will be the first Black American to lead the committee, said he planned “a new way of doing business,” including working to rejoin the Iran nuclear pact and World Health Organization, and seeking to regain Congress’ traditional control over the right to declare war. The Queens congressman represents New York’s 5th congressional district, which includes Inwood, Valley Stream, and Elmont.

“Not only will we need to re-engage with a world that has felt the marked absence of U.S. global leadership, but we must also rethink traditional approaches to foreign policy,” Meeks said in a statement.

When the new Congress is seated in January, the 11-term House member will succeed fellow U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx), who lost a Democratic primary this year to a more progressive challenger.

Engel, known as a strong advocate for Israel, was seen as too hawkish by some members of the Democratic Party’s left wing. Engel voted for the 2003 Iraq War and opposed President Barack Obama’s 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Meeks supported the nuclear agreement, and voted against the Iraq War.

The caucus vote was 148-78 for Meeks over Representative Joaquin Castro, who had campaigned for the post as a more progressive alternative to Meeks.

Castro, currently vice chairman of the foreign affairs panel, said he looked forward to working with Meeks on common goals such as promoting diversity at the State Department and rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.

Republican President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran deal in 2018 and restored harsh U.S. economic sanctions designed to force Tehran into a wider negotiation on curbing its nuclear program, development of ballistic missiles and support for regional proxy forces. Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20, wants Washington to rejoin the accord.

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U.S. Appeals Court Skeptical of Ending Cap on State And Local Tax Deductions

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By Jonathan Stempel

A federal appeals court in Manhattan on Thursday appeared skeptical of arguments by four Democratic-leaning U.S. states to overturn Republican President Donald Trump’s decision to cap federal deductions for state and local taxes.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing an appeal from New York, Connecticut, Maryland and New Jersey over a law limiting to $10,000 the state and local taxes that households itemizing deductions could write off their federal returns.

That law, known as the SALT cap, was part of the $1.5 trillion tax overhaul signed by Trump in 2017 following approval on a party-line vote from the Republican-controlled Congress.

Democratic President-elect Joe Biden has not called for a repeal of the cap, which would benefit primarily people making over $100,000 a year, and it is unclear Congress would approve it despite support from many Democrats.

The cap disproportionately affects high-tax states, with New York estimating its taxpayers would pay $121 billion of extra federal taxes from 2018 to 2025. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called it an “economic attack on Democratic states.”

While the SALT deduction’s roots date to the 1860s, the three-judge appeals court panel seemed unconvinced that capping it was a means to coerce states to cut taxes and the services they pay for – such as hospitals, police, schools, and road and bridge construction – or that judges should get involved.

“The Senate and the House changed their minds because the American people spoke,” Circuit Judge Raymond Lohier told a lawyer for the states. “When it comes to taxes, the Supreme Court tells us unless there is something explicitly in the Constitution … we’re going to step out of the way.”

Caroline Olsen, the states’ lawyer, acknowledged that Congress’s taxing power is “quite broad,” but that economic stresses caused by the cap “severely infringe” states’ ability to exercise their own tax policies.

Lawyers for the Trump administration said the SALT cap did not target particular states.

The case “concerns a policy disagreement masquerading as a constitutional claim,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jean-David Barnea told the panel. “Congress’ right to create and eliminate tax deductions is entirely a matter of legislative policy judgment.”

Capping the SALT deduction helped pay for the 2017 tax law, which lowered taxes for wealthy Americans and slashed the corporate tax rate. U.S. District Judge Paul Oetken in Manhattan refused to block the SALT cap in Sept. 2019.

The case is New York et al v Mnuchin et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 19-3962.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

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NYC’s Santacon Bar Crawl Canceled by COVID-19

FILE PHOTO: Revelers dressed as Santa Claus take part in the event called Santacon at Times Square in New York City, U.S., December 14, 2019. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz/File Photo

Santacon, an annual bar crawl in which thousands of young people dressed in Santa Claus costumes roam — or stagger — through the streets of Manhattan, has been canceled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, organizers said.

The event, which had been scheduled for Dec. 12, is intended to raise money for charity, but more than a few locals may see the cancellation as an early Christmas present.

During Santacon, hordes of Santas usually move from bar to bar, downing shots. Complaints about rowdiness, inebriated participants and public urination typically follow.

“All of the reindeer got the ‘Rona so, the Elves have advised Santa to hold off on the in-person merriment,” organizers wrote on their website https://santacon.nyc earlier this week.

Instead the organizers encouraged readers to consider playing a drinking game at home or donating to a charity that provides food to workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

The decision was forced by emergency rules imposed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Cuomo has banned public gatherings of more than 10 people, shortened opening hours for bars and restaurants and required that alcohol only be served alongside a substantial serving of food.

The event traces its origins to San Francisco in 1994 as an effort to satirize Christmas-time consumerism. New York City hosts the largest Santacon offshoot, organizers say. The fate of similar events in other cities was unclear.

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2 NYPD Cops From Long Island Wounded in Shootout Released from Hospital

Photo by Nick Allen

Two New York City police officers from Long Island who were shot and wounded earlier this week while responding to a domestic dispute were discharged from hospital on Thursday in time to spend the Thanksgiving holiday with their families, the city’s police commissioner said.

Joseph Murphy and Christopher Wells departed the hospital in the city’s Queens borough in wheelchairs and were greeted with cheers from dozens of their fellow officers, according to video released by the commissioner, Dermot Shea.

“After being shot in the line of duty protecting a domestic-violence victim, Officers Wells & Murphy leave the hospital today to continue their recoveries at home with loved ones,” Shea wrote.

Both officers had been rushed to the hospital on Tuesday, one suffering a gunshot wound to the upper thigh and the other to the hands. They were in stable condition and had been expected to recover.

The incident started when the two officers accompanied a woman, who was not identified, to her house around midday after she filed the latest of several domestic violence reports at a local police precinct, Shea had said.

Shortly after the officers and the woman entered her home in a neighborhood of modest houses near John F. Kennedy International Airport, the gunman appeared and started shooting, according to Shea.

The officers returned fire and killed the suspect, who has been identified as 41-year-old Rondell Goppy. Goppy worked as a peace officer at City University of New York, had a firearms license and no criminal history, police said earlier this week. At least two handguns were recovered, they said.

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Cuomo Calls U.S. Supreme Court’s Religious Gatherings Ruling ‘Irrelevant’

FILE PHOTO: New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to the media while visiting the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center which will be partially converted into a hospital for patients affected by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., March 23, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday dismissed as “irrelevant” a U.S. Supreme Court decision blocking coronavirus restrictions imposed on religious gatherings, saying it related to specific areas that were no longer considered at high risk.

The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, voted 5-4 late on Wednesday in favor of requests by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two Orthodox Jewish congregations for an injunction to block the restrictions from being enforced.

The order marked one of the first consequential actions on the court involving President Donald Trump’s new appointee, conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who cast a deciding vote in favor of the religious groups. Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts dissented along with the court’s three liberals.

“HAPPY THANKSGIVING!” Trump tweeted on Thursday in response to the decision.

The case stemmed from an Oct. 6 decision by Cuomo, a Democrat, to shut down non-essential businesses in targeted areas where infections have spiked, including some neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

New York has categorized areas where coronavirus infections are increasing in severity as yellow, orange or red. Under Cuomo’s restrictions, houses of worship in red zones could remain open at 25% capacity up to a maximum of 10 people.

In a call with reporters on Thursday, Cuomo said the high court’s ruling would have no impact on the state’s virus control efforts because the red zone status for the area in question had expired last week.

“It’s irrelevant from any practical impact because the zone that they were talking about has already been moot,” the governor said. “I think this was really just an opportunity for the court to express its philosophy and politics.”

He also pointed out that the decision, which now goes to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is not final and did not appear to affect New York state’s rules for mass gatherings.

The houses of worship argued the limits imposed by the state violated religious freedoms protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, and that their facilities were singled out for more stringent restrictions than essential businesses, such as food stores.

The Orthodox congregations Agudath Israel of Kew Garden Hills and Agudath Israel of Madison, as well as nationwide Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America, requested the injunction.

A federal judge in Brooklyn rejected separate requests made by the religious groups on Oct. 9. The New York City-based 2nd Circuit declined emergency requests filed by both sets of challengers on Nov. 9.

In two previous cases this year, the court, in 5-4 votes, turned away similar requests by churches in Nevada and California. Those votes occurred before the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and saw her and the other three liberal members of the court joined by Roberts in the majority.

Cuomo urged New Yorkers to “Mask up” in a tweet on Thursday, adding that nearly 7,000 people in the state had tested positive the day before while 67 died as a result of the virus.

For more coronavirus coverage, visit longislandpress.com/coronavirus

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Supreme Court Blocks NY Coronavirus Cap on Religious Service Crowd Size

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, U.S. July 2, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

By Lawrence Hurley

The U.S. Supreme Court late on Wednesday backed Christian and Jewish houses of worship challenging New York State’s latest restrictions in novel coronavirus hot spots.

The court on a 5-4 vote granted requests made by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and two Orthodox Jewish congregations.

The order marked one of the first consequential actions on the court of President Donald Trump’s new appointee, conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who cast a deciding vote in favor of the religious groups. Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts dissented along with the court’s three liberals.

An Oct. 6 decision by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down non-essential businesses in targeted areas where infections have spiked, including some Brooklyn neighborhoods. It limited gatherings at religious institutions to 10 people in some areas and 25 in others.

The houses of worship say that the limits violated religious freedoms protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, and that their facilities were singled out for more stringent restrictions than essential businesses, such as food stores. The Orthodox congregations Agudath Israel of Kew Garden Hills and Agudath Israel of Madison, as well as nationwide Orthodox Jewish group Agudath Israel of America.

A federal judge in Brooklyn rejected separate requests made by the religious groups on Oct. 9. The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined emergency requests filed by both sets of challengers on Nov. 9.

In two previous cases this year, the court on 5-4 votes turned away similar requests by churches in Nevada and California.

Those votes occurred before the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and saw her and her three liberal colleagues joined by Roberts in the majority.

For more coronavirus coverage, visit longislandpress.com/coronavirus

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2 NYPD Cops From Long Island Wounded, Suspect Killed in Shootout

Photo by Nick Allen

Two New York City police officers from Long Island were shot and wounded on Tuesday before returning fire and killing the shooter as they tried to resolve a domestic dispute in a residential neighborhood in Queens, police said.

Both officers were rushed to a hospital where they were in stable condition, one with a gunshot wound to the upper thigh and the other to the hands, New York Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said.

Both officers will require surgery, Shea told reporters outside Jamaica Hospital Medical Center in Queens.

The incident started when the two officers accompanied a woman, who was not identified, to her house around midday after she filed the latest of several domestic violence reports at a local police precinct, Shea said.

Shortly after the officers and the woman entered her home in a neighborhood of modest houses near John F. Kennedy International Airport, the gunman appeared at around 12:46 p.m., he said.

“After about six minutes, he comes into the residence and starts shooting,” Shea said.

The suspect, whose relationship with the woman was not described at the briefing, was killed at the scene, he said.

The dead man, identified as 41-year-old Rondell Goppy, worked as a peace officer at City University of New York, had a firearms license and no criminal history, police said. At least two handguns were recovered, they added.

Shea said police are investigating why Goppy was permitted to have weapons after the domestic violence reports.

The deadly encounter came amid a spike in the city’s gun violence. The number of shooting victims has more than doubled so far this year to 1,667, according to New York Police Department data.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio hailed the officers as heroes.

“Here we have a situation where a woman was in danger and these officers went to protect her, only to find themselves in harm’s way immediately,” he said.

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U.S. Officials Worry About Holiday Spike As Coronavirus Surges

holiday spike
Brendan McDermid/Reuters

U.S. health authorities braced for further increases in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths on Friday, capping a week in which the spread of the novel coronavirus accelerated ahead of next week’s Thanksgiving holiday.

The seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases reached more than 165,000 on Thursday, while the seven-day average for deaths climbed to 1,359, more than any day since late May, according to a Reuters tally of public health data.

With hospitalizations rising across much of the nation, straining already exhausted medical staff, officials in more than 20 states have imposed restrictions to curtail the spread of the virus.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, said the virus is spreading at a high rate across more than half the country and that Thanksgiving gatherings should be limited to immediate family members rather than a maximum number of people.

“I don’t like it to be any number… if you say it can be 10, and it’s eight people from four different families, then that probably is not the same degree of safe as 10 people from your immediate household,” Birx told CNN on Friday.

In a positive sign for combating the pandemic, Pfizer Inc <PFE.N> said it will apply to U.S. health regulators on Friday for emergency use authorization of its COVID-19 vaccine, the first such application in a major step toward providing protection against the virus.

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE <22UAy.DE> <BNTX.O> this week reported final trial results that showed the vaccine was 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 with no major safety concerns.

If the data is solid, “we literally could be weeks away from the authorization of a 95% effective vaccine,” U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar said on CBS’ “This Morning.”

California’s governor on Thursday imposed some of the most stringent restrictions on the vast majority of the state’s population, with a curfew on social gatherings and other non-essential activities that will start on Saturday night and end on the morning of Dec. 21.

“The virus is spreading at a pace we haven’t seen since the start of this pandemic, and the next several days and weeks will be critical to stop the surge,” Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said in a statement announcing the measure a week before the Thanksgiving holiday.

Similar restrictions took effect in Ohio this week, while Minnesota ordered a shutdown of restaurants, bars, fitness centers and entertainment venues from Friday until Dec. 18 at the earliest, as the state’s hospital intensive care units were stretched to capacity.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in the United States has jumped nearly 50% in the past two weeks, with more than 80,000 people being treated for the disease in hospitals across the country as of late Thursday, a Reuters tally showed, the most at any time during the pandemic.

Daily COVID-19 deaths surpassed the 2,000 mark for the first time since late June on Thursday.

THANKSGIVING FEARS

U.S. officials have pleaded with the public to avoid unnecessary travel and exercise caution as the winter holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas approach.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a “strong recommendation” on Thursday that Americans refrain from traveling for the holiday.

With cases and deaths increasing steadily in most states, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation updated its widely cited model.

It now projects 471,000 coronavirus deaths by March 1, up from less than 440,000 in its previous forecast.

In Wisconsin, which has seen a record number of deaths and cases this week and where the seven-day average positivist rate is 33%, the state’s hospital association has implored lawmakers to address the growing crisis by providing more resources to health care workers and facilities.

“With few tools available right now to curb spread other than increasingly urgent public appeals, our COVID numbers are growing rapidly and predict, quite accurately so far, a health care crisis in Wisconsin that without significant, swift, and unified action will become a catastrophe,” Wisconsin Hospital Association President and CEO Eric Borgerding wrote in a letter to legislators and the governor on Thursday.

COVID-19 Global Tracker, United States: https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/countries-and-territories/united-states/

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; additional reporting by Anurag Maan in Bengaluru, Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, California; Editing by Dan Grebler)

For more coronavirus coverage, visit longislandpress.com/coronavirus

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MTA To Borrow a Second Time from Fed Program

Commuters leave a Long Island Railroad train at Pennsylvania Station in New York July 15, 2014. (Reuters)

New York‘s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) on Wednesday authorized borrowing up to $2.9 billion from a U.S. Federal Reserve loan program to aid its coronavirus-battered budget.

The new borrowing, which follows a $450.7 million MTA loan from the Fed’s Municipal Liquidity Facility (MLF) in August, would allow the cash-strapped agency to end its current fiscal year with a balanced budget, officials said.

The MTA faces nearly $16 billion in projected deficits through 2024 due a sharp drop in ridership on its buses, subways and trains amid the pandemic and is considering fare and toll changes, massive service cuts, and the layoff of more than 9,300 workers.

“This is just ugly,” said MTA Chief Financial Officer Robert Foran. “This is something we must consider to survive.”

The nation’s largest public transportation network, which has been pushing for $12 billion in federal virus aid, is scheduled to vote on its fiscal 2021 budget next month.

The MTA and Illinois, which took out a $1.2 billion loan in June, were the only two users of the MLF as of the end of October. Illinois could also turn again to the MLF to help deal with a $3.9 billion budget deficit.

New Jersey, which considered the option of a MLF loan to fill a $4.28 billion revenue gap in its budget, instead sold $3.67 billion of bonds in the U.S. municipal market on Tuesday.

The $500 billion MLF, which the Fed authorized in April and which is scheduled to expire on Dec. 31, was designed as a backstop for the muni market by allowing states and local governments to access short-term, cash-flow loans.

It is one of around a dozen emergency credit facilities launched by the central bank this year to help ease the blow from the pandemic.

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NY Fines NRA, Bans Insurance Sales for 5 Years

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows the National Rifle Association (NRA) headquarters, in Fairfax, Virginia, U.S., August 6, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The National Rifle Association agreed to a five-year suspension of its insurance business in New York State and will pay a $2.5 million civil fine to settle charges it offered insurance to members without a license and concealed how it routinely kept some premiums for itself.

New York‘s Department of Financial Services announced the settlement on Wednesday, a little over three months after state Attorney General Letitia James sued to dissolve the NRA, the leading U.S. gun rights group, accusing it of widespread corruption.

The settlement resolved charges over the NRA’s two-decade relationship with insurance broker Lockton Cos, including the sale of 28,015 policies to New Yorkers and the NRA’s receipt of more than $1.8 million in associated royalties and fees.

Linda Lacewell, the state insurance superintendent, said Lockton’s NRA-branded “Carry Guard” program illegally offered policyholders coverage for criminal defense costs and the “intentional” use of firearms in shooting incidents.

She also accused the NRA of misleading gun collectors, dealers, instructors, clubs and shows by promising coverage at the “lowest possible cost,” when the group typically kept between 13.7% and 21.9% of premiums paid.

The NRA has said it did not underwrite its insurance programs, and that like “countless” affinity groups it relied on industry experts to market products to members.. It did not admit wrongdoing in agreeing to settle.

William Brewer, a lawyer for the NRA, said in a statement: “The DFS inquiry, which began with a roar, ends with a whimper.” He said the settlement has no effect on other litigation pending between New York state and the NRA.

The NRA has long battled with New York state officials, including in a May 2018 lawsuit where it accused Governor Andrew Cuomo of attempted “blacklisting” for pressuring banks and insurers to send business elsewhere.

“It would be highly unusual for a state to allow an insurance company to reimburse for an illegal activity,” Cuomo told CNN in August 2018. “They call it ‘murder insurance.'”

The financial services department fined Lockton $7 million in May 2018 over its involvement with Carry Guard.

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