Biden agriculture secretary nominee wants farmers on front line of climate change fight

Agriculture Secretary nominee Tom Vilsack touted the ability that American farmers have to drive the country’s progress when it comes to climate change.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee on Tuesday, Ranking Member Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., asked about what could be done on the agriculture front to help the climate, which has quickly become the key issue for the Biden administration. Vilsack was enthusiastic about the potential farmers have.


“I think agriculture is probably the first and best way to begin getting some wins in this climate area,” Vilsack said. “I think farmers are prepared for it, farmers are anxious to do it.”

Stabenow is a co-sponsor of the Senate’s Growing Climate Solutions Act, a bipartisan bill that aims to help farmer participate in carbon markets, whereby those who reduce their carbon emissions below a certain level can earn credits that can then be sold to others who need produce higher levels of carbon – a process known as “cap and trade.”


Vilsack agreed that a system that incentivizes action will see support from farmers.

“If it’s voluntary, if it’s market-based, if it’s incentive-based, I think you will see farmers, ranchers, and producers cooperate extensively,” he said.

In the meantime, he said, there are already proposals that can be acted upon on the administrative end. These include making sure that any potential measures benefit farmers and not third parties, and forming an advisory group of farmers that would focus on how to structure carbon sequestration – a method of drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.


Vilsack said the government also needs to improve when it comes to researching carbon sequestration.

“There are ways in which root systems of crops can potentially be designed in a way that will sequester more carbon,” he said. “We ought to be exploring that, we ought to be looking at ways in which we can increase market opportunities for greater storage.”

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Senate set to confirm Buttigieg for transportation secretary

The Senate is poised to approve Pete Buttigieg to be transportation secretary, which would make him the first openly gay person ever confirmed to a Cabinet post

Buttigieg’s nomination was set for a final vote Tuesday in the full Senate, after the 39-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and Biden’s one-time rival in the Democratic presidential primaries received bipartisan praise at his confirmation hearing last week.

“Mr. Buttigieg is an impressive public servant who has already earned the respect and confidence of both sides,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in floor remarks on Monday. “I look forward to confirming his nomination.”

He is also expected to play an important role in promoting Biden’s climate initiatives, helping to oversee stronger automotive fuel economy standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support the president’s push later this year on a sweeping $2 trillion climate and infrastructure plan. That plan will focus in part on rebuilding roads and bridges and expanding zero-emission mass transit while boosting electric vehicle infrastructure, including building 500,000 charging stations over the next decade.

“I look forward to seeing Pete Buttigieg confirmed by the full Senate,” said Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the panel. “Transportation issues historically have been addressed on a bipartisan basis, and I expect to continue that practice with Mr. Buttigieg.”

Biden hasn’t indicated how he intends to pay for a broad infrastructure plan, coming on top of a proposed $1.9 trillion virus relief plan that has met some headwinds in Congress. Buttigieg’s suggestion during his hearing that a gas tax hike might be needed was immediately walked back by his spokesman afterward.

“We need to build our economy back, better than ever, and the Department of Transportation can play a central role in this,” Buttigieg said. He noted that the transportation sector, particularly car emissions, is the single biggest contributor in the U.S. to global warming.

The Afghanistan war veteran burst onto the national scene in 2019 after launching a longshot presidential bid, drawing initial skepticism due to his youth and limited government experience. He outperformed expectations after zeroing in on a message of generational change, finishing the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses in a virtual tie with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. But Buttigieg struggled to appeal to Black voters and dropped out of the race after a crushing loss to Biden in the South Carolina primary. Buttigieg chose to quickly endorse Biden, helping him solidify centrist support against Sanders’ strong liberal challenge.

Buttigieg now points to his experience as a mayor and on the campaign trail as valuable to his “bottom up” approach to improving transportation. He described initiating a “smart streets” program to make South Bend’s downtown more pedestrian- and bicyclist-friendly while spurring hundreds of millions of dollars in economic investment.

He’ll also bring diversity to the Cabinet. There hasn’t been an openly gay Cabinet secretary before. Under President Donald Trump, Richard Grenell served as acting director of national intelligence and is openly gay, but did not have to face Senate confirmation as an acting director. In the late 1990s, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott blocked a vote on President Bill Clinton’s pick for ambassador to Luxembourg, James Hormel, over his sexual orientation; Clinton ultimately installed Hormel with a recess appointment.

Buttigieg says he recalled watching the treatment of Hormel’s nomination as a 17-year-old and seeing the limits. Buttigieg says it proved to be an important crack in the glass ceiling for the LGBTQ community.

“As I was in that hearing taking those questions from senators, you could see my husband, Chasten, over my shoulder, and that is something that has never happened before for a Cabinet nominee,” Buttigieg, reflecting on the moment, told ABC’s “The View.” “My hope is that, in turn, makes it easier for the next person to come along, so that this is never even viewed as a barrier by a future generation.”

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New US Secretary of State Blinken Delivers Remarks After Assuming Office


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Sputnik International

The new US top diplomat previously served in the Obama administration as deputy national security adviser from 2013 to 2015 and deputy secretary of state from 2015 to 2017.

Sputnik is live from Washington, DC, where new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is delivering remarks as he arrives at the Department of State following his confirmation by the US Senate on Tuesday. Lawmakers confirmed him in a vote of 78-22, as the diplomat promised to rebuild ties with America’s allies and return to talks with Tehran on the Iranian nuclear programme.

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Joe Biden picks transgender doctor Rachel Levine as assistant health secretary in historic move

President-elect Joe Biden has picked Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine to be his assistant secretary of health, leaving her poised to become the first openly transgender federal official to be confirmed by the US Senate.

A paediatrician and former Pennsylvania physician general, Dr Levine was appointed to her current post by Democratic Governor Tom Wolf in 2017, making her one of the few transgender people serving in elected or appointed positions nationwide.

She won past confirmation by the Republican-majority Pennsylvania Senate and has emerged as the public face of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Dr Rachel Levine will bring the steady leadership and essential expertise we need to get people through this pandemic — no matter their zip code, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability — and meet the public health needs of our country in this critical moment and beyond,” Mr Biden said in a statement.

A graduate of Harvard and of Tulane Medical School, Dr Levine is president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

She’s written in the past on the opioid crisis, medical marijuana, adolescent medicine, eating disorders and LGBTQ medicine.

Mr Biden and his transition team have already begun negotiating with members of Congress, promoting speedy passage of the president-elect’s $1.9 trillion plan to bring coronavirus, which has killed nearly 400,000 people in the United States, under control.

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Former US president Barack Obama says he’s excited about Joe Biden’s administration picks.

It seeks to enlist federal emergency personnel to run mass vaccination centres and provide 100 immunisation shots in his administration’s first 100 days while using government spending to stimulate the pandemic-hammered economy.

Mr Biden also says that, in one of his first acts as president, he’ll ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days to slow the virus’s spread.

Dr Levine joins Mr Biden’s Health and Human Services secretary nominee Xavier Becerra, a Latino politician who rose from humble beginnings to serve in Congress and as California’s attorney general.

You view Joe Biden in a navy suit with a black face mask walking on an airport runway on an overcast day.
US president-elect Joe Biden has made a number of historic choices among his cabinet and advisers.(Reuters: Kevin Lamarque)

Businessman Jeff Zients is Mr Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, while Mr Biden also picked infectious disease specialist Rochelle Walensky to run the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vivek Murthy as surgeon general and Yale epidemiologist Marcella Nunez-Smith to head a working group to ensure fair and equitable distribution of vaccines and treatments.

The Government’s top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, will also work closely with Mr Biden’s administration.


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COVID-19: Support bubbles won’t be scrapped, health secretary pledges | Politics News

The health secretary has ruled out scrapping support bubbles, after worries the system could be ended amid a toughening of England’s third coronavirus lockdown.

Support and childcare bubbles, which were introduced in June, mean adults living alone and single parents living with children under the age of 18 can join up with one other household.

The system allows people in a bubble to visit each other indoors, ignore the two-metre social distancing rule and stay overnight.

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June 2020: How will ‘support bubbles’ work?

Support bubbles allow, for instance, elderly people living alone to join up with an adult son or daughter and spend time with grandchildren and share childcare responsibilities.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that the government “may have to do more” if ministers feel the rules “are not being properly observed”.

Such comments have led to speculation that support bubbles could be a measure that is looked at again by ministers.

But Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he wanted to be “crystal clear” that the policy would not be scrapped.

“I can rule out removing the bubbles that we have in place – the childcare bubbles [and] the support bubbles are very important and we’re going to keep them,” he told a Downing Street news conference.

“I know how important they are to people and they are an important part of the system that we have got to support people whilst also having these tough measures that are necessary.”

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Hancock: ‘Don’t flex the rules’

However, Mr Hancock warned people to stick with those they have chosen to form a bubble with.

“The bubbles are there for individual, specific people – so if you have bubbled with somebody, that is the person you have bubbled with,” he said.

“You can’t keep moving bubbles, that’s very important. Somebody in your bubble essentially becomes effectively part of your household.

“It is important that people stick to the same bubble but the bubbles policy will stay.”

Mr Hancock added: “I want to be absolutely crystal clear about that.”

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North Korea says leader Kim elected as general secretary of ruling party: KCNA

SEOUL: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been elected as general secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party, state media KCNA said on Monday (Jan 11), taking over the title from his late father in a largely symbolic move seen aimed at further cementing his power.

The election took place on Sunday during the party’s ongoing multi-year congress, designed for Kim to map out blueprints for his diplomatic, military and economic policy over the next five years and make key personnel decisions.

The congress “fully approved” a proposal for promoting Kim to general secretary of the party, KCNA said, calling the position “head of the revolution and centre of guidance and unity.”

READ: ‘Our biggest enemy’: North Korea’s Kim says US policy doesn’t change with presidents

READ: North Korea’s Kim says economic plan failed as rare party congress begins

Kim has wielded almost absolute power in dynastically ruled North Korea since taking over following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in 2011. In 2012, the party named Kim Jong Il “eternal general secretary” and Kim Jong Un “the first secretary” at a conference.

The party also held elections for its Central Committee, a key governing body that includes the powerful politburo, KCNA said.

Kim Yo Jong, the young leader’s sister and senior party official who had previously been a candidate member of the politburo, was not on the list, confounding widespread expectations from observers of the reclusive regime.

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Acting US defense secretary orders USS Nimitz to remain in Middle East, citing Iranian threat

The Department of Defense on Sunday said the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and its strike group will remain in the Middle East after Iran allegedly issued threats against President Trump and other U.S. government officials.

“Due to the recent threats issued by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other U.S. government officials, I have ordered the USS Nimitz to halt its routine redeployment,” Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller said in a statement. “The USS Nimitz will now remain on station in the U.S. Central Command area of operations. No one should doubt the resolve of the United States of America.”

FILE: The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz transits the Arabian Sea. 
(U.S. Navy via AP)

The announcement came after the Pentagon said it pulled the aircraft out of the region ahead of the one-year anniversary of the killing of Iran’s top military general, Qassem Soleimani.

The purported “de-escalatory signal” came after Iranian leaders threatened revenge against President Trump and military leaders for Soleimani’s death.

Speaking at a gathering to commemorate the anniversary of Soleimani’s killing, the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ebrahim Raisi, said not to presume that President Trump, “who appeared as a murderer or ordered a murder, may be immune from justice being carried out.”

With just over three weeks left in Trump’s presidency, tensions between the U.S. and Iran have been on the rise. Last week the U.S. flew strategic B-52 bombers over Iran as a show of force that military officials said was intended to caution Iran against carrying out attacks against U.S. forces or interests.


A week earlier, Trump warned Iran that it would be held responsible for attacks targeting Americans in Iraq, referring to an American military officer who told reporters that the U.S. had detected signs that Iran had made preparations for possible attacks on U.S. or allied targets in Iraq or elsewhere in the Mideast.

Trump recently cited “chatter” that Iran might strike. Days after a Dec. 20 rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad by Iranian-supported Shiite militia groups, Trump tweeted that Iran was on notice.

“Some friendly health advice to Iran: If one American is killed, I will hold Iran responsible. Think it over,” Trump wrote on Dec. 23. He added, “We hear chatter of additional attacks against Americans in Iraq.”

Because of the potential for escalation that could lead to a wider war, the U.S. has sought to deter Iran from additional attacks, having maintained a near-continuous aircraft carrier presence in the Persian Gulf region since the USS Abraham Lincoln was sent in May 2019 amid concerns that Iran was considering attacking U.S. interests in the region. The U.S. also sent additional land-based attack planes and reestablished a troop presence in Saudi Arabia.


The Nimitz deployed from the U.S. in April and was due to return before the end of the year. In early December, its planned return was postponed, in part out of concerns about potential Iranian threats, and more recently it was ordered to provide support off the coast of Somalia for the movement of American forces out of the country.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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COVID-19: ‘Majority of new cases in UK are new variant,’ says health secretary | UK News

The new, faster-spreading coronavirus variant makes up the majority of new cases in the UK, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has told Sky News.

A recent surge of COVID-19 cases is largely due to the variant which may be up to 70% more infectious than the original one, Mr Hancock said.

“The ‘suppress the virus’ bit has got a whole lot harder since the new variant really got going over December,” he said.

The new variant spreads far faster than the original one

“Now the majority of the new cases in the UK are the new variant. It is much, much easier to transmit from one person to another.”

The faster transmission had put extreme pressure on the NHS, Mr Hancock added.

“It is absolutely critical that people follow the rules and do everything they can to stop the spread, particularly of the new variant of this virus that transmits so much faster.”

“So, the challenge of suppressing the virus has got harder, but thankfully, the cavalry has arrived in terms of not one, but two vaccines – and we’ve got to get them into people’s arms at thee speed at which they can be manufactured”.

He was referring to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine that today became the second coronavirus jab to be approved for UK use.

Scientists predicted the new variant, which has driven tougher restrictions across the country, would quickly become the dominant one.

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Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries is concerned about the mutations

Mr Hancock will announce changes to COVID-19 rules in response to the rise in a statement to MPs later today.

Fears of the new variant, which was first found in the UK, has caused dozens of countries to restrict travel with Britain.

Another new variant thought to have originated in South Africa was found soon after the first.

It is also far more spreadable than the original one and has since spread to other parts of the world – most recently confirmed in Australia.

Since news of the new variants emerged, the proportion of people testing positive for COVID-19 has rapidly grown.

New positive tests within the past 28 days reached 53,135 on Tuesday, the highest since the pandemic began. A further 414 deaths were also reported.

A delay in reporting due to Christmas has likely inflated those figures, with Tuesday’s numbers including positive tests confirmed before 25 December.

But Dr Susan Hopkins, from Public Health England, said they were “largely a reflection of a real increase” and were extremely concerning.

Hospitals across the country echoed this worry.

A “major incident” has been declared in Essex in response to a “significant growing demand” that threatens to overwhelm health services.

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Georgia secretary of state sends letters to 8K out-of-state voters who requested absentee ballots

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Monday took action to protect the state’s upcoming Senate runoff races from interference from out-of-state voters.

Raffensperger said on Monday that his office had sent out 8,000 letters to individuals who had moved out of Georgia, but had requested absentee ballots for the Jan. 5 elections.

“Qualified Georgians and only Georgians are allowed to vote in our elections,” Raffensperger said in a statement. “I have said many times that I will not tolerate out of state voters attempting to undermine the integrity of the vote in Georgia.”

The secretary of state said anyone trying to “game the system” will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Penalties include a fine of up to $100,000 and as many as 10 years in prison.


Not everyone who received a letter was violating the law, however. Residents who are temporarily out of state – as some may be due to the pandemic and telework opportunities – are able to request absentee ballots, as are military members stationed in other parts of the U.S. and students temporarily out of state for college.


The state’s runoff elections have garnered national attention because they will determine the partisan balance in Senate. By choosing both Democratic candidates, voters could effectively give control to the party via a 50-50 split, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris serving as the tie-breaking vote when necessary.

Republicans Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are seeking to defend their seats from Democratic challengers Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively.

President-elect Joe Biden defeated President Trump in Georgia – the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state since Bill Clinton in 1992.

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