Senators strive to simplify the federal student loans process

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Senators met Thursday to evaluate ways to improve and simplify student loans for higher education.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education Labor & Pensions met to specifically address the Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. The act was first signed into law in 1965 by Lyndon B. Johnson and required providing federal assistance for students pursuing post-secondary and higher education.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) “manages the student financial assistance programs authorized under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965,” according to their website.

However, for years lawmakers and politicians from both sides of the aisle have sharply criticized the need to simplify the application process and provide transparency for the system in place.

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Lawmakers demand answers from Boeing, SpaceX over delays in space program

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group)- Lawmakers on Capitol Hill gathered Wednesday to evaluate the progress National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Boeing and SpaceX have made in developing a spacecraft to carry astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond.

Since the end of NASA’s shuttle program in 2011, the space agency has sent their astronauts to the ISS via Russian Soyuz rockets. The price tag for a round-trip ticket per astronaut is more than $80 million, according to a Government Accountability Office Report. However, the contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscocosmos) may lead to a gap in presence of United States astronauts on the ISS.

“NASA’s contract with Roscosmos permits it to delay the use of the final seat by up to 6 months to late spring 2019, with a return flight approximately 6 months later. NASA has not yet developed a contingency plan to ensure an uninterrupted presence on the ISS should the Commercial Crew Program experience further delays,” the report stated.

The House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space invited witnesses from Boeing Space Exploration, NASA, SpaceX and the U.S. Government Accountability Office to Wednesday’s hearing. This was the subcommittee’s second hearing in three months to follow up on projects devoted to the future of human spaceflight. In Nov. 2017, the subcommittee met and discussed the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion crew vehicle, and improvements to ground infrastructure for those projects.

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Senators re-evaluate how to achieve democracy in Syria

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – The Senate Foreign Relations Committee met Thursday to evaluate the United States’ approach to policy in Syria.

In April 2017, President Donald Trump launched a military strike on a Syrian government air base in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed dozens of civilians — including young children. Before then, airstrikes in the region were targeted primarily toward the Islamic State group and not Syrian Government. The Islamic State group’s presence in Syria had diminished by the end of 2017.

The United States along with Russia and Jordan signed a memorandum of principles in Nov. 2017 to maintain administrative arrangements in opposition areas, primarily the southwestern portion of the country.

The committee met Thursday to discuss how the U.S. can continue to help in securing the region from terrorist groups and help the Syrian people establish a fair and democratic process for governing.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R- Tenn., blamed President Bashar Assad’s regime for its involvement in the country’s ongoing unrest and instability.

“More than 12 million people, roughly half of all Syrians are displaced and the Assad regime bears overwhelming responsibility for this destruction and extremism it has spawned,” Corker said. With the support of the U.S. and collation partners, the Syria democratic forces succeeded in sweeping ISIS out of the capital of Raqqa in October.”

The chairman said that while the territory was lost in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State group is still a major threat to the regional stability.

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Congress takes deeper look at enforcing sanctions

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Members of the House Foreign Affair Committee met Wednesday to discuss the enforcement of United States sanctions.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions safeguarding the U.S. against foreign countries, regimes, terrorists and other entities engaged in malicious activity.

The hearing focused primarily on sanctions on North Korea, Russia and Iran. Committee Chairman Ed Royce, R- Calif., said that the committee would use Wednesday’s hearing to explore if sanctions enacted by Congress have been fully implemented to the best of their ability.

“We’ve used America’s economic might to help stop terrorists, counter Iran and North Korea’s nuclear programs, and respond to Russian aggression and the degradation of democracy in Venezuela,” Royce said. “No matter how tough the language of our sanctions bills, they are only as strong as their enforcement. That’s why we must work together to ensure the Executive Branch not only has the political will, but also the growing resources and expertise needed to implement strong sanctions.”

The chairman brought to the committee’s attention the fast-approaching deadline for the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. The legislation imposed sanctions on North Korea, Russia and Iran. Royce said the committee expects key elements of the act to be met by the end of January 2018.

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Lawmakers investigate mysterious attacks on US diplomats in Cuba

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Lawmakers on Capitol Hill met Tuesday to further investigate the attacks on United States diplomats and their families in Cuba.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues met to evaluate oversight and response about the attacks in Cuba that may have begun as early as November 2016.

Under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations established in 1961, diplomats are provided certain protections when posted within a receiving, or host, country.

“The person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable. He shall not be liable to any form of arrest or detention. The receiving State shall treat him with due respect and shall take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack on his person, freedom or dignity,” the documents stated.

The agreement also covers the space in which the diplomat lives.

“The private residence of a diplomatic agent shall enjoy the same inviolability and protection as the premises of the mission,” the accord states.

According to State Department officials, the first reports of strange sounds began in late 2016 — possibly as early as November. By mid-February 2017, there was a pattern of similar symptoms in reported incidents. U.S. government officials asked Cuba to adhere to the Vienna Convention and provide protection to diplomats in Cuba. The Cuban government denied any involvement and opened a separate investigation into the incidents.

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5 things Congress needs to confront in 2018

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Congress will face several key legislative deadlines when they return from holiday break.

The items on Congress’s to-do list include government funding, Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) and disaster funding. The most pressing will be funding the government in order to avoid a government shutdown Jan. 19.

1. Short-term spending bill

The current short-term spending bill expires Jan. 19. Congress passed a continuing resolution Dec. 21, 2017 to keep the government funded into the New Year. The Congress uses “congressional resolution” to buy more time to address key legislative functions.

A congressional resolution is “legislation in the form of a joint resolution [requires approval of both chambers] enacted by Congress, when the new fiscal year is about to begin or has begun, to provide budget authority for federal agencies and programs to continue in operation until the regular appropriations acts are enacted, according to the Senate glossary.

However, when the Congress returns, they will have about two weeks to pass a bipartisan bill and avoid a government shutdown.

2. Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP)

The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) will receive funding through the end of March 2018. CHIP was signed into law in 1997 and is jointly funded by both the federal government and individual states.

In 2016, approximately 9 million people were enrolled in the program, according to the annual enrollment report on Medicaid.gov.

The program “provides low-cost health coverage to children in families provides low-cost health coverage to children in families that earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid. In some states, CHIP covers pregnant women. Each state offers CHIP coverage, and works closely with its state Medicaid program,” according to HeathCare.gov.

The website also says that CHIP covers “routine checkups, immunizations, doctor visits, prescriptions, dental and vision care, inpatient and outpatient hospital care, laboratory and X-ray services and emergency services.”

State health departments have already begun to notify families that funding could expire for the program in March.

Jimmy Kimmel gave an emotional opening statement on his show calling for support of the program.

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Congress seeks to define president’s role in using military force

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met Wednesday to discuss the role of the president and Congress when using military force.

On Nov. 14, the committee evaluated a related topic — the president’s power to fire a nuclear weapon — and evaluated the administrative procedures for firing that weapon. That hearing looked at the powers enacted by The Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which places the power of firing a nuclear weapon under political control and not the military.

Wednesday’s hearing focused primarily on Article I and Article II of the U.S. Constitution and the president’s powers to act independently or with the consent of Congress when considering the use of force against an enemy.

Article I of the constitution does grant the Congress the power to “declare war.” Article II gives the president authority as the Commander in Chief:

“The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States,” according to Article II.

Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R- Tenn., said it is in the nation’s interest to have a strong commander in chief to take quick and decisive military actions in times national security calls for it.

“That authority must be legally sound and be checked by vigorous oversight and engagement from Congress on behalf of the American people. The decision to use military force is one of the most consequential any president can make,” Corker said.

The senator said he was interested in learning more about the tests the president should use to determine if force should be used, how the president should weigh the use of force against other options, and the consideration of public opinion in these situations.

“We should look at the legal side of this issue. The reality is that unless Congress takes the rare step of withholding funding, history shows that the president’s ability to initiate military action without a congress has been extremely broad,” Corker stated. “That said, discussing the legal doctrine regarding these questions is a conversation worth having.”

Ranking Member Ben Cardin, D-M.d., expressed his concern about the president taking military action without the Congress’ consent.

“President Trump’s entire inclination to use military force and to risk war rather than to find diplomatic solutions to these crises is troubling,” Cardin said. “His attitude toward diplomacy ranges from disinterest to naivety to actively sabotaging his own Secretary of State.”

The senator remarked that the increasing tension between the president and North Korea could lead to a nuclear first strike situation.

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Congress debates the role of artificial intelligence in America

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Lawmakers on Capitol Hill met Tuesday to discuss advancements in the field of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, wanted to discuss the new and emerging role of AI in the nation’s growing digital environment.

Artificial intelligence is defined as “a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers,” and “the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior,” according to Merriam-Webster’s. But it was also evident during Tuesday’s hearing that the definition and uses for AI are still evolving.

Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said the increase in data collected from Americans through the use of the internet and mobile devices has contributed to the advances in the industry.

“Although AI applications have been around for decades, recent advancements, particularly in machine learning, have accelerated in their capabilities because of the massive growth in data gathered from billions of connected devices and the digitization of everything,” Wicker said. “Developments in computer processing technologies and better algorithms are also enabling AI systems to become smarter and perform more unique tasks.”

During his opening remarks, he also cautioned the risks of automating common processes through AI.

“These are important considerations to ensure that the decisions made by AI systems are based on representative data that does not unintentionally harm vulnerable populations or act in an unsafe anticompetitive or biased way,” Wicker said. “So, there is a lot to think about.”

The subcommittees’ Ranking Member Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, also expressed his concern for certain aspects of AI calling it a “black box.”

“It can make decisions and come to conclusions without showing its reasoning. There are also known cases of algorithms that discriminate against minority groups,” Schatz said. “And when you start to apply the systems to criminal justice, health care or defense, lack of transparency and accountability is worrisome.”

The senator encouraged lawmakers not to purchase AI systems for the government until there is a stronger understanding of its capabilities. Schatz said that U.S. policy needs to be updated to adapt to the advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

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Weapons of Mass Destruction office takes shape within the Dept. of Homeland Security

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Lawmakers held a hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday to discuss the implementation of a new office within the Department of Homeland Security dealing with weapons of mass destruction.

The new office within DHS will be called the “Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office.” The office has already begun the process of reorganizing and implementing some of the new changes of the consolidation to their current workflow.

The House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Emergency Preparedness, Response and Communications expressed an interest in understanding more about the establishment of this new office.

Subcommittee Chairman Dan Donovan, R- N.Y., said the threat of weapons of mass destruction has changed and become more diverse.

“The scope of the threat has changed dramatically. It has become much more diverse and diffuse,” Donovan said. “We know that terrorist groups have long strived to employ chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials in their attacks.”

The congressman mentioned a number of increased attacks; including the use of chemical weapons by Syrian government involving mustard, Sarin and chlorine gas as well as a plot to release hydrogen sulfide uncovered by the Australian police and a laptop retrieved from ISIS in Syria in 2014 with plans for weaponized bubonic plague.

“As the world of threats becomes more complex, it is incumbent upon the Department of Homeland Security to assess whether or not it is optimally organized to best confront the variety of threats it is expected to counter,” Donovan said.

Ranking Member Congressman Donald Payne, D- N.J., felt strongly that the Department of Homeland Security should have consulted the committee before implementing the reorganization. He reminded the department that the DHS will soon no longer have the ability to make those changes under the section 872 of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, as the committee has taken action to repeal section 872.

The section states that secretary of the department may “may establish, consolidate, alter, or discontinue organizational units within the Department.”

“I appreciate the congressional authorization process takes time, but it also has value. And this committee has proven itself to be willing to partner when DHS has wanted to reorganize,” Payne said. “DHS officials spoke in generalities about how reorganization advanced the then secretaries unity of effort initiative and created a center point of contact for stakeholders. Such vague explanations are little justification for setting a disrupt.”

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Actor Richard Gere: In Tibet, ‘oppression cannot be tolerated’

WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) – Members of the House Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific met Wednesday to discuss U.S. policy toward Tibet.; more specifically, working toward greater access, religious freedom and human rights for Tibetan citizens.

Two bills pending before the subcommittee were highlighted. The H.R.1872 —Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2017 would require the U.S. State Department to submit a list to Congress of senior Chinese officials in leadership positions for review. Congress would then determine the officials’ level of access to the United States contingent with the access U.S. officials are granted to Tibetan areas in China.

The second bill, H.Con.Res.89, maintains that United States policy toward Tibet and treatment of the Tibetan people should remain a factor in U.S. relations with China.

Subcommittee Chairman Ted Yoho, R- Fla., discussed the ways in which the Tibetan people have had their human rights and civil liberties encroached upon.

“Human rights and personal freedoms in Tibet are already in a poor and worsening state,” Yoho said. “According to a 2016 Human Rights report, the government of China engages in the severe repression of Tibet’s unique cultural and linguistic heritage by among other means strictly curtailing the civil rights of the Tibetan population, including the freedoms of speech, religion, association, assembly and movement.”

The congressman added that the flow of information is heavily restricted to Tibet by China.

“Tibet remains extremely isolated. The flow of information in and out of Tibet is tightly restricted,” Yoho said. “Tibetans are prevented from obtaining passports and moving freely and foreigners especially journalists and officials are frequently denied access.”

Ranking Member of the Subcommittee Brad Sherman, D- Calif., said in 2015 China expressed they had no intentions of granting autonomy to Tibet.

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