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Furloughed federal workers may lose some health benefits: US senators

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Four U.S. senators expressed concern on Wednesday that federal employees affected by the partial government shutdown could lose their dental and vision health insurance benefits if they are unable to pay their premiums.

In a letter to the government’s Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Democratic Senators Mark Warner, Tim Kaine, Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin said forcing workers to pay the premiums during the shutdown would be “unacceptable.”

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Some 800,000 federal employees have been furloughed or are working without pay since the shutdown began on Dec. 22, after Republican President Donald Trump and Democrats in Congress deadlocked over his demand for $5.7 billion for a border wall with Mexico.

With no paychecks and thus no payroll deductions, federal workers subject to the shutdown will miss paying their vision and dental premiums. OPM has said workers would start receiving bills for the premiums depending on how long the shutdown lasts.

“We are alarmed that unpaid federal employees will be required to incur this additional financial hardship during a time when they can least afford it,” the senators said.

The senators said some insurers were willing to allow workers to continue coverage without payment and urged OPM to work with all insurers to help employees maintain their coverage.

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The states the senators represent – Virginia for Warner and Kaine and Maryland for Cardin and Van Hollen – have a large population of federal workers. Many of those affected by the shutdown have turned to unemployment assistance, food banks and other support, or have sought new jobs.

OPM did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney

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Trump says ‘phase 1’ China trade pact on track for November

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US President Donald Trump on Monday said progress in developing the text of a partial trade pact with China means he will likely be able to sign it next month.

Trump remains upbeat on the chances Beijing and Washington will seal the mini-deal he announced earlier this month -- marking a cooling-off period in the two nations' damaging trade war.

"We'll be able to, we think, sign a completed document with China on phase one," Trump said at the White House.

US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said efforts to commit the agreement to paper before the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Chile next month are "on track" though some work remains to be done.

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Teacher at taxpayer-funded private Christian school forced out for being gay

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A private Christian school in Florida that receives taxpayer funding for school vouchers has forced out one of its teachers, she says, because she is gay.

Monica Toro Lisciandro says Covenant Christian School in Palm Bay, Florida not only parted ways with her after she acknowledged she is gay when school administrators asked her, but her students were told her "morals" did not line up with the schools, Lisciandro says.

The school questioned Lisciandro, who teaches theater, after someone called to report saying they had seen her at a pride event.

"Lisciandro said the assistant principal told her the school received word that Lisciandro was in a relationship with a woman, she had attended a pride festival, and she hosted an LGBTQ group in her studio," Florida Today reports.

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Gay marriage, abortion laws liberalized in Northern Ireland

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Same-sex marriage and abortion laws in Northern Ireland were liberalized on Monday in a landmark shift for the province aimed at bringing it into line with mainland Britain but which has stoked resentment.

The relaxation of the UK-ruled territory's restrictive laws on the issues occurred at midnight (2300 GMT), after a deadline elapsed for local lawmakers to stop the changes imposed by MPs in Westminster.

British lawmakers in July approved decriminalizing abortion and creating lawful access to abortion services, as well as rolling out new regulations to allow same-sex marriage and civil partnerships.

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