Democrats, Republicans in US Congress reach deal in government shutdown talks

By David Morgan and Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Democratic and Republican leaders in the U.S. Congress agreed on a proposal to fund federal agencies through mid-February, clearing the way for a House of Representatives vote on Thursday that would be a critical step in averting a partial government shutdown.

If the House passes the measure, the Senate would then need to vote on the bill funding the government through Feb. 18 and send it to Democratic President Joe Biden sign into law ahead of the midnight Friday deadline for a partial shutdown to begin.

"This is a good compromise that allows an appropriate amount of time for both parties in both chambers to finish negotiations on appropriations," Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said.

A group of hard-line Senate Republican conservatives are threatening to delay consideration in protest against Biden's COVID-19 vaccination mandates, raising the possibility that the government could partially shut down over the weekend while the Senate moves slowly toward eventual passage.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who must quell the rebellion within his caucus to keep the government operating, reiterated on Thursday that there would be no shutdown. But he did not respond when asked whether Republicans would agree to move quickly by consenting to circumvent the Senate's cumbersome legislative rules.

"We need to pass it and that's what we'll be working toward doing," the top Senate Republican told reporters.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the debate and vote would take place on Thursday, after Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro said in a statement that "agreement has been reached on a Continuing Resolution."

Congress has until midnight on Friday to pass a measure that would maintain funding of federal government operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, amid concerns about a new rise in cases and the arrival of the Omicron variant in the United States.

A partial government shutdown would create a political embarrassment for both parties, but especially for Biden's Democrats, who narrowly control both chambers of Congress.

Congress faces another urgent deadline right on the heels of this one. The federal government is also approaching its $28.9 trillion borrowing limit, which the Treasury Department has estimated it could reach by Dec. 15. Failure to extend or lift the limit in time could trigger an economically catastrophic default.

The fact that the resolution extends funding into February suggested a victory for Republicans in closed-door negotiations. Democrats had pushed for a measure that would run into late January, while Republicans demanded a timeline extending into February or March to leave spending at levels agreed to when Republican Donald Trump was president.

"While I wish it were earlier, this agreement allows the appropriations process to move forward toward a final funding agreement which addresses the needs of the American people DeLauro said.

But she said Democrats did prevail in including a $7 billion provision for Afghanistan evacuees.

Once enacted, the stopgap funding measure would give Democrats and Republicans nearly 12 weeks to resolve their differences over 12 annual appropriations bills totaling around $1.5 trillion that fund "discretionary" federal programs for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1. Those bills do not include mandatory funding for programs such as the Social Security retirement plan that are renewed automatically.

"Now we must get serious about completing (fiscal year '22) bills," Senator Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. "If that doesn't happen, we’ll be having this same conversation in February."

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and David Morgan; additional reporting by Moira Warburton and Susan Heavey; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)

Some Republicans in US Congress try to close government over vaccine mandates

By Susan Cornwell and David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers' efforts to keep the U.S. government operating hit a stumbling block on Wednesday as a group of hard-line Republicans threatened to try to block any plan that allowed COVID-19 vaccine mandates to proceed.

Congress has until midnight on Friday to pass a measure continuing to fund federal government operations or face a partial shutdown during a pandemic that would be a political embarrassment to President Joe Biden's Democrats, who narrowly control both chambers of Congress.

The hard-line Republican House Freedom Caucus called on Senate colleagues on Wednesday to vote against any measure, known as a "continuing resolution," that would support Biden's requirements that workers at federal contractors and large companies receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

"Use all procedural tools at your disposal to deny timely passage of the CR unless it prohibits funding - in all respects - for the vaccine mandates and enforcement thereof," the group wrote in an open letter to top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell.

McConnell earlier in the week said he was confident that the measure funding the government would pass. House Republicans do not have enough votes to block legislation. But most legislation requires 60 votes to advance in the evenly divided 100-seat Senate, so Democrats would need support from at least 10 Senate Republicans to get to a vote on passage.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters talks with McConnell on funding the government were "making good progress". He dismissed the Freedom Caucus' threat.

"We'll have total chaos," Schumer said. "It's up to the leaders on both sides to make sure that doesn't happen." Other lawmakers suggested one way to solve the problem would be to allow a separate vote on the vaccine mandates.

Negotiations between the two parties are focused on how long to continue to fund the government. Democrats want to extend current funding levels just until January and then pass new spending bills, while Republicans have urged a delay until later in the spring, a move that would leave spending at levels agreed to when Republican Donald Trump was president.

The Biden administration was blocked in court on Tuesday from enforcing two mandates requiring millions of American workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19, a key part of its strategy for controlling the spread of the coronavirus.

One federal judge temporarily blocked enforcement of a government mandate for healthcare workers. Another blocked the administration from enforcing a regulation that new government contracts must include clauses requiring that contractors' employees get vaccinated.Democrats were indignant at the conservative Republicans' demand. "I think we're in the middle of a public-health crisis. And vaccine requirements are reasonable public-health measures at this particular point in time," House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries told reporters.

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell and David Morgan, additional reporting by Moira Warburton; Editing by Scott Malone and Mark Heinrich)

US Supreme Court liberals, conservatives collide in abortion case

By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday heard arguments in a case that could upend the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing procedure nationwide, with liberal justices warning against ditching important legal precedents while some conservatives signaled support for the restrictive Mississippi law at issue.

The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, is hearing at least 70 minutes of oral arguments in the southern state's appeal to revive its ban on abortion starting at 15 weeks of pregnancy. Lower courts blocked the Republican-backed law.

Jackson Women's Health Organization, the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, challenged the law and has the support of Democratic President Joe Biden's administration. A ruling is expected by the end of next June.

Roe v. Wade recognized that the right to personal privacy under the U.S. Constitution protects a woman's ability to terminate her pregnancy. The Supreme Court in a 1992 ruling called Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey reaffirmed abortion rights and prohibited laws imposing an "undue burden" on abortion access.

Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh noted that if Mississippi wins the case, such a ruling would not prohibit abortion nationwide but would let states regulate it as they see fit.

"You are not arguing somehow that the court somehow has the authority to prohibit abortion," Kavanaugh told Mississippi's lawyer, Scott Stewart. "You are arguing the constitution is silent and therefore neutral."

"Why is 15 weeks not enough time" for a woman to decide to have an abortion, Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts asked.

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer quoted from the Supreme Court's Casey ruling, which stated that the court should not bow to political pressure in overturning Roe and that such a ruling would "subvert the court's legitimacy."

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned Stewart on whether if Roe were overturned then other major precedents including those on gay rights might also be threatened.

"The issue of when life begins has been hotly debated by philosophers since the beginning of time," Sotomayor said. "It's still debated in religions. So when you say this is the only right that takes away from the state the ability to protect a life, that's a religious view, isn't it, because it assumes that a fetus is life?"

Anti-abortion advocates believe they are closer than ever to overturning Roe, a longstanding goal for Christian conservatives.

Sotomayor said Mississippi brought its new challenge purely because of changes on the Supreme Court, which has become more conservative.

"Will this institution survive the stench this creates?" Sotomayor asked, saying that it would give the impression that the Constitution and its interpretation is based purely on politics. "If people think it is all political ... how will the court survive?"

Roberts expressed some skepticism about overturning court precedents, noting that "it's going to be a long list" of past rulings that the justices currently might think were incorrectly decided.

Mississippi's is one of a series of restrictive abortion laws passed in Republican-governed states in recent years. The Supreme Court on Nov. 1 heard arguments over a Texas law banning abortion at around six weeks of pregnancy but has not yet issued a ruling.

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan cited the importance of the court adhering to precedent "to prevent people from thinking this court is a political institution that will go back and forth depending on what part of the public yells the loudest and preventing the people from thinking the court will go back and forth based on the court's membership."


The Roe and Casey decisions determined that states cannot ban abortion before a fetus is viable outside the womb, generally viewed by doctors as between 24 and 28 weeks.

A 15-week ban is not a "dramatic departure from viability," Roberts said.

Roberts questioned whether viability was a central issue in the Roe or Casey rulings. The chief justice's question indicated he might be willing to uphold the Mississippi law by saying that viability was not central to earlier abortion decisions, a position abortion rights advocates hotly contest.

Mississippi's 15-week ban directly challenged the viability finding. Even if the court does not explicitly overturn Roe, any ruling letting states ban abortion before fetal viability outside the womb would raise questions about how early states could prohibit the procedure. In the 1992 Casey ruling, the court said Roe's "central holding" was that viability was the earliest point at which states could ban abortion.

"The right of a woman to choose, the right to control her own body, has been clearly set since Casey and never challenged. You want us to reject that line of viability and adopt something different," Sotomayor told Stewart.

Mississippi is among 12 states with so-called trigger laws designed to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned. Additional states also likely would move quickly to curtail abortion access.

Hundreds of protesters from both sides of the abortion debate rallied outside the white marble neoclassical courthouse ahead of the arguments. Anti-abortion protesters held huge signs reading "abortion is murder," some carrying Christian crosses. Abortion rights activists chanted "what do we want? Abortion access. When do we want it? Now."

If Roe were overturned or limited, large swathes of America could return to an era in which women who want to end a pregnancy face the choice of undergoing a potentially dangerous illegal abortion, traveling long distances to a state where the procedure remains legal and available or buying abortion pills online. The procedure would remain legal in liberal-leaning states, 15 of which have laws protecting abortion rights.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Gabriella Borter, Jan Wolfe and Julia Harte; Editing by Will Dunham)

Fauci: Too soon to say if Omicron variant will lead to severe disease

By Jeff Mason and Ahmed Aboulenein

(Reuters) -It is too early to know whether Omicron variant of COVID-19 will lead to severe disease, but preliminary information from South Africa indicates it does not result in unusual symptoms, top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said on Tuesday.

Fauci said there were 226 confirmed cases of the variant in 20 countries as of Tuesday morning but Omicron had not been detected yet in the United States.

Fears about the variant have rattled financial markets and sparked concerns about the strength of the global economic recovery as the world continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

"It is very difficult to know whether or not this particular variant is going to result in severe disease," Fauci told reporters in a briefing. "Although some preliminary information from South Africa suggests no unusual symptoms ... we do not know, and it is too early to tell."

President Joe Biden and his administration have pressed Americans to take advantage of vaccines and booster shots, but vaccine hesitancy in a segment of the U.S. population has thwarted efforts to tame the virus' spread. About 69% of Americans aged 12 and up are fully vaccinated.

"We are hoping, and I think with good reason, to feel good that there will be some degree of protection," against the variant from the vaccines, Fauci said. "If you're unvaccinated, get vaccinated. And if you're vaccinated, get boosted."

Biden, whose poll numbers have suffered in part amid frustration that the pandemic is not under control, on Monday urged Americans not to panic about the new variant.

"To beat the pandemic, we have to vaccinate the world as well," the president said.

Asked on Tuesday if the United States was doing enough to vaccinate the rest of the world, Fauci noted the United States was doing more than other nations.

"'Enough' is a tough word. Are we doing a lot? We are doing an awful lot," he said.

Fauci said getting vaccines into people's arms in southern African countries and other low- and middle-income countries had proven difficult logistically and many doses that were shipped went unused.

"Other African countries ... have actually told us not to ship any more vaccine because they have not been able to adequately utilize it," he said.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Ahmed Aboulenein; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman)

California ban on high-capacity magazines reinstated by U.S. appeals court

(Reuters) - A divided U.S. appeals court on Tuesday reinstated California's ban on high-capacity magazines, calling it a reasonable means to try reducing gun violence following a spate of mass shootings nationwide.

By a 7-4 vote, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected claims by firearms owners that banning magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition violated their right to bear arms under the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment.

The majority opinion by Circuit Judge Susan Graber called the 2017 ban a "reasonable fit for the important government interest of reducing gun violence" that interfered "only minimally" with the right to self-defense.

Tuesday's decision is a temporary victory for gun control advocates, as they await a U.S. Supreme Court decision on a New York law imposing strict limits on carrying guns outside the home. The Supreme Court signaled during oral arguments on Nov. 3 that it might strike down the law, while appearing open to gun limits in schools, sports stadiums and crowded public settings. It is expected to rule by June.

A lower court judge had struck down the California ban in 2019, and a divided three-judge appeals court panel upheld that decision in August 2020. The appeals court set aside that ruling in February so that 11 judges could consider the dispute.

One of Tuesday's dissenters, Circuit Judge Patrick Bumatay, said high-capacity magazines have been used for centuries, with millions in use today, and deserved protection under the 2008 Supreme Court decision giving individuals a right to bear arms.

The California Rifle & Pistol Association, which challenged the state ban, said it will seek to put Tuesday's decision on hold while it appeals to the Supreme Court.

California Governor Gavin Newsom welcomed the decision.

"Weapons of war don't belong on our streets," the Democratic governor tweeted. "This is a huge victory for the health and safety of all Californians."

Democratic presidents appointed the seven judges in Tuesday's majority, while Republican presidents appointed the four dissenting judges. The judges issued six opinions totaling 156 pages.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Chicago and David Shepardson in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Leslie Adler)

Record number of US firms change tack on political spending after Jan. 6 attack

By Jessica DiNapoli

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The number of S&P 500 companies that have either stopped political giving or plan to disclose it hit a record in 2021 after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and recent social justice protests, according to a study viewed by Reuters.

According to the study from the Center for Political Accountability, U.S. companies see new risks in political giving in light of the country's hyper-partisan environment, leading corporations to either halt contributions or disclose them. The center advocates for corporate transparency.

"Unrest and angry political conflict have defined the past two years," according to the study, which cited as examples the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol, the two-time impeachment of former President Donald Trump and attempts to overturn the 2020 election. "In these explosive times, companies are taking action.

"They’ve adopted political spending policies to avoid or mitigate heightened risk," according to the study.

Political spending came under closer scrutiny earlier this year after a raft of major companies suspended contributions to lawmakers who voted against President Joe Biden's election certification. [L1N2JN2ZQ]

At the same time, some companies, such as Delta Air Lines Inc, are becoming outspoken on social and political issues, including voting rights. [L1N2OP2UL]

The new study found that 370 companies disclose some or all of their political spending, or ban at least one type of it, such as contributions to trade associations. That figure is up from 332 companies last year. [L1N2H31BW]

The Center for Political Accountability considers disclosure or outright banning of political giving a mark of top flight corporate governance policy, said Bruce Freed, the group's president.

The study found that one of the biggest changes over the past six years among companies related to so-called "dark money" groups, which are tax-exempt organizations that influence politics. There was nearly a 100% increase from 2015 to 2021 in the number of companies who prohibit or disclose contributions to those organizations.

Intel Corp was highlighted by the study for adopting a corporate political contribution policy stating that the chipmaker reviews recipients' voting records and public statements, and that it will communicate directly with them.

The study also highlighted videogame maker Activision Blizzard Inc and artificial intelligence computing company NVIDIA Corp, among others, for improving their policies by prohibiting payments to the "dark money" groups.

(Reporting by Jessica DiNapoli in New York; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Hondurans vote for president as leftist contender vies to end conservative rule

By David Alire Garcia and Gustavo Palencia

TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) -Hondurans headed to the polls on Sunday to pick a new president, with leftist candidate Xiomara Castro hoping to oust the right-wing National Party, whose 12-year rule has been beset by graft scandals, chronic unemployment and waves of fleeing migrants.

If she wins, Castro would become the first female president in Honduras. Her victory would mark the left's return to power for the first time since her husband former President Manuel Zelaya was deposed in a 2009 coup.

She has gained favor from voters for her efforts to consolidate opposition to outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who has denied accusations of having ties to powerful gangs, among other corruption scandals.

Recent polls have reinforced her status as favorite.

"We can't stay home. This is our moment. This is the moment to kick out the dictatorship," said Castro, mobbed by reporters just after voting in the town of Catacamas early on Sunday.

"It's now or never."

The candidate said she trusted that voters would report any problems they see and that international observers would also help to ensure a fair vote.

The election is the latest political flashpoint in Central America, a major source of U.S.-bound migrants and key transit point for drug trafficking, and where concerns over increasingly authoritarian governments have grown.

The vote also marks a point of diplomatic jostling between Beijing and Washington after Castro said she would open diplomatic relations with China, de-emphasizing ties with U.S.-backed Taiwan.

Castro's main rival is the National Party's Nasry Asfura, a wealthy businessman and two-term mayor of the capital Tegucigalpa, who has tried to distance himself from the unpopular incumbent. He was expected to cast his ballot later in the capital.

Speaking on Honduran television, Asfura said he would abide by the vote outcome.

"Whatever the Honduran people want in the end, I will respect. The ballot boxes will say everything," he said. "We hope today is a day of celebration and peace for Honduras."

In Tegucigalpa, as polling stations opened up on a cool, sunny day, dozens of people could be seen lined up early at multiple locations.

"I'm against all the corruption, poverty and drug-trafficking," said Jose Gonzalez, 27, a mechanic who was lined up outside his polling place and said he would cast his ballot for Castro, his young daughter standing next to him.

Polls close at 5 p.m., and preliminary results are expected three hours later. Some 5.2 million Hondurans are eligible to vote.

Hernandez's disputed 2017 re-election, and its ugly aftermath, looms large over Sunday's vote.

Widespread reports of irregularities provoked deadly protests claiming the lives of over two dozen people, but Hernandez's election win was ultimately rubber-stamped by allies on the electoral council.

Days later, it was vouched for by the government of then-U.S. President Donald Trump.


A large number of national and international election observers are set to monitor Sunday's voting, including an 80-person delegation from the Washington-based Organization of American States led by former Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis.

"The voice of the Honduran people must be respected and the process must not lead to acts of violence," Solis told Reuters.

Honduras is one of the world's most violent countries, although homicide rates recently have dipped.

The pre-election tension was showing in some Tegucigalpa neighborhoods late Saturday, as some businesses boarded up storefront windows, and at least two auto dealerships located in an area near the president's offices had emptied their lots of cars. The neighborhood has been the scene of raucous protests in the past.

"The campaign has been very hard," said Julieta Castellanos, a sociologist and former dean of Honduras' National Autonomous University, especially after Castro in October sealed an opposition alliance with the 2017 runner-up that she said "generated big expectations."

Castellanos said post-election violence is possible if the race is especially close, if a large number of complaints are lodged and give rise to suspicions of wide-scale fraud, or if candidates declare themselves victorious prematurely.

Political violence has already claimed more than 30 lives this year, including local candidates and activists across all major parties.

In addition to the presidential race, voters are also deciding the composition of the country's 128-member unicameral Congress, plus officials for some 300 local governments.

In Tegucigalpa's working-class Kennedy neighborhood, 56-year-old accountant Jose, who declined to give his surname, said he would stick with the ruling party.

"I have hope Tito Asfura can change everything," he said, using the mayor's nickname. "Look, here the corruption is in all the governments."

(Reporting by David Alire Garcia and Gustavo Palencia; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Daniel Flynn and Lisa Shumaker)

US does not impose new Omicron testing for passengers from southern Africa

By Peter Szekely and David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. health officials have not imposed any new screening or tracing requirements in response to the newly discovered Omicron COVID-19 variant that prompted the Biden administration to restrict travel from southern Africa.

Starting Monday, the United States will bar most foreign travelers from South Africa and seven other southern African countries in an attempt to curb the spread of the Omicron variant, which was first identified in South Africa on Friday.

However, the travel restrictions do not ban flights or apply to U.S. citizens and lawful U.S. permanent residents. Until the ban starts at 12:01 ET Monday, flights from South Africa have continued to carry foreign nationals.

Airline passengers entering the United States from abroad are already subject to stringent CDC COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements, but are not generally monitored by health officials after they leave flights and are not required to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival in the United States.

Nearly all foreign nationals entering the U.S. need to be vaccinated to enter but Americans do not need to be vaccinated to return home.

Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, the two airlines that fly direct to Johannesburg said on Friday they do not plan any changes to their South Africa-U.S. flights after the variant was discovered.

Fully vaccinated travelers must provide proof of negative COVID-19 tests taken within three days of their departure but those not fully vaccinated must have had a negative test result within one day.

The CDC did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on how its requirements are enforced, or if it will issue additional requirements since the emergence of the Omicron variant prompted the U.S. travel restrictions.

No cases of the Omicron variant were identified in the United States as of Friday, the CDC has said. But infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said this weekend it was likely already in the United States.

The CDC said Friday it expects to identify the B.1.1.529 variant quickly if it emerges in the United States.

United currently operates five flights per week between Newark and Johannesburg. Delta operates three from Johannesburg to Atlanta.

Two flights from South Africa that landed in the Netherlands Friday had 13 passengers with the Omicron variant on board, Dutch authorities said Sunday, and cases are being discovered in countries around the world.

The Netherlands Omicron cases were among 61 who tested positive for COVID-19 out of about 600 passengers on the two flights.

A spokesperson for KLM, the Dutch arm of Air France, said the passengers on the flight had either tested negative or shown proof of vaccination before getting on planes in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose, Peter Szekely, David Shepardson; Editing by Heather Timmons and Diane Craft)

Australia considers pausing plan to reopen after Omicron cases

By Renju Jose

SYDNEY (Reuters) -Australia will review its plans to reopen borders to skilled migrants and students from Dec. 1, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, after the country reported its first cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Two people who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa tested positive on Sunday for the newly identified variant as officials ordered 14-day quarantine for citizens returning from nine African countries.

Morrison said "it is a bit too early" to reinstate two-week mandatory hotel quarantine for foreign travellers, urging people to remain calm as data had not yet fully determined the severity, transmissibility and vaccine resistance of the Omicron strain

"So we just take this one step at a time, get the best information, make calm, sensible decisions," Morrison told Nine News.

Omicron, dubbed a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants. But experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other strains.

Morrison said the national security committee will meet later on Monday to assess the border reopening relaxations due from Wednesday. A meeting of leaders of all states and territories will be held by Tuesday, he said.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he had asked the country's immunisation advisory group to review the time frame for COVID-19 booster shots. About 87% of Australia's population above 16 years of age have been fully vaccinated, above the rates seen in the United States, Britain and many countries in Western Europe.

Health officials in New South Wales said three people who arrived on Sunday from southern Africa had tested positive for COVID-19 and that genomic sequencing was underway to check if they were infected with the Omicron strain.

The new variant has emerged as Sydney and Melbourne, Australia's largest cities, had begun to allow vaccinated citizens entry from overseas without quarantine from Nov. 1, having shut their borders for more than 18 months.

Both cities have tightened their travel rules with all international travellers ordered to quarantine for 72 hours. Other states have not opened their borders to foreign travellers yet due to varying vaccination rates.

Australia has so far recorded about 209,000 coronavirus cases and 1,997 deaths since the pandemic began.

(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by David Gregorio and Stephen Coates)

Lithuania says Belarus will keep testing West, urges NATO rethink

VILNIUS (Reuters) - Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said on Sunday that the NATO military alliance needs to change its stance towards Belarus, whose military, he said, was becoming more integrated with Russian armed forces.

Nauseda also told a news conference after meeting NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that Belarus would keep testing the unity of the west.

"We can have no doubts that Lukashenko's regime and the powers that support it will continue to test the western world's unity and their ability to react and repel the hybrid attacks," Nauseda said.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas, writing by Philip Blenkinsop, Editing by Louise Heavens)

'It's all lies': Migrants stuck at Polish border feel cheated by people smugglers

By Yara Abi Nader and Joanna Plucinska

ORLA/BIALYSTOK, Poland (Reuters) - Syrian friends Anas Kanaan, 34, and Mouein al-Hadi, 36, were told by people smugglers that they would easily be able to get to Germany from Belarus. They just had to pay 3,000 euros ($3,390) each to an intermediary in Turkey.

But the safe crossings from Belarus to Poland indicated by the smugglers were closed off. Then, after more than a week spent camping in freezing forests on the border, a smuggler led them to a Polish village in broad daylight where they were easily spotted by police, arrested and returned to Belarus.

"It's like our money has just basically evaporated," al-Hadi told Reuters in a field near the Polish town of Orla after again managing to breach the border but now unable to walk because his feet were swollen from the cold.

His childhood mate Kanaan added: "It's all lies. They all lead you to roads where you can die. And at the end they tell you 'we are not responsible for you. Die, whatever'. They just want your money."

Shortly afterwards, the two Syrians - who said they want to request asylum in Poland, not move on westwards to Germany - were picked up once again by the Polish border guard who said they would be taken to a detention centre.

"More people are becoming aware that they've been led into a trap and that what they've been promised is a lie," said Marysia Zlonkiewicz, an activist from Polish charity With Bread and Salt.


The crisis on the Belarusian border, involving thousands of migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere all hoping to get into the European Union, has dragged on for months.

Poland and the EU accuse President Alexander Lukashenko of encouraging the migrants to travel to Belarus and cross the border illegally as revenge for sanctions imposed on Minsk over human rights abuses. Belarus denies the charge and says the EU is to blame for the humanitarian crisis on the border.

Migrants face a much tougher challenge now to enter the EU.

Under EU pressure, airlines have restricted flights from the Middle East to Belarus, while many travel agencies in the region have stopped selling plane tickets to the ex-Soviet republic.

Poland has deployed over 20,000 border guards, soldiers and police in a sealed-off border zone, while Belarusian authorities have taken many migrants back to Minsk with the apparent aim of letting them return to their home countries.

Poland's Border Guard says illegal border crossing attempts have dropped to around 200 attempts a day from about 500.

Around 314 smugglers have been detained in Poland since August, police data shows. They are from countries including Germany, Sweden, Ukraine and Georgia.

As crossings have become more difficult, the people smugglers have hiked their prices to as much as $7,000, migrants told Reuters.


"With every day, things are evolving on the border. Every day, there is a (new) obstacle, there are more guards, more people," Syrian migrant Khaled Zein Al Deen, 45, told Reuters at an open migrant centre in the Polish city of Bialystok.

He and his five relatives lost 18,000 euros to smugglers who promised to take them to a safe apartment, with a car driving ahead of them to make sure there were no police checks. That also proved a lie, and they were caught.

A Polish army spokesperson said the tighter security was making migrants more desperate, with many using force to push through, especially further south, with the help of Belarusians who gave them implements to break down the border fence.

Despite the falling temperatures and increased risks of being caught, the migrants are unlikely to give up trying to get cross, activist Zlonkiewicz told Reuters.

"When it comes to development, education or finding work many of these people have nothing to return to, they have no choice," she said.

"Families went into debt or sold their apartments and homes. There's no going back."

($1 = 0.8846 euros)

(Additional reporting by Fedja Grulovic, Stephan Schepers, Lukasz Glowala, Charlotte Bruneau; Editing by Gareth Jones)

New Zealand politician cycles to hospital in labor and gives birth

MELBOURNE (Reuters) -New Zealand Member of Parliament Julie Anne Genter got on her bicycle early on Sunday and headed to the hospital. She was already in labour and she gave birth an hour later.

"Big news!" the Greens politician posted on her Facebook page a few hours later. "At 3.04am this morning we welcomed the newest member of our family. I genuinely wasn’t planning to cycle in labour, but it did end up happening."

The island nation of 5 million already has a reputation for down-to-earth politicians. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern famously took maternity leave while in office and brought her three-month old to a United Nations meeting as she was still breastfeeding.

"My contractions weren’t that bad when we left at 2am to go to the hospital - though they were 2-3 min apart and picking up in intensity by the time we arrived 10 minutes later," Genter wrote.

"Amazingly now we have a healthy, happy little one sleeping, as is her dad," said Genter, a dual New Zealand-U.S. citizen who was born in Minnesota and moved to the Pacific country in 2006.

Genter - her party's spokesperson for transport issues and whose Facebook profile includes "I love my bicycle" - also biked to the hospital in 2018 to give birth to her first-born, local media said.

(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by William Mallard)

Low expectations on nuclear talks as Iran creates facts on the grounds

By John Irish, Francois Murphy and Parisa Hafezi

PARIS (Reuters) - World powers and Iran return to Vienna on Monday for a last ditch effort to salvage a 2015 nuclear deal, but few expect a breakthrough as Tehran's atomic activities rumble on in an apparent bid to gain leverage against the West.

Diplomats say time is running low to resurrect the pact, which then-U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, angering Iran and dismaying the other world powers involved - Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia.

Six rounds of indirect talks were held between April and June. The new round begins after a hiatus triggered by the election of a new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline cleric.

Tehran's new negotiating team has set out demands that U.S. and European diplomats consider unrealistic. They are insisting that all U.S. and EU sanctions imposed since 2017, including those unrelated to its nuclear programme, be dropped,

In parallel, Tehran's conflicts with the U.N. atomic watchdog, which monitors the nuclear programme, have festered. Iran has pressed ahead with its enrichment programme and the IAEA says its inspectors have been treated roughly and refused access to re-install monitoring cameras at a site it deems essential to reviving the deal with world powers.

"They are doing enough technically so they can change their basic relationship with the West to be able to have a more equal dialogue in the future," said a Western diplomat involved in the talks.

Two European diplomats said it seemed Iran was simply playing for time to accumulate more material and know-how.

Western diplomats say they will head to Monday's talks on the premise that they resume where they left off in June. They have warned that if Iran continues with its maximalist positions and fails to restore its cooperation with the IAEA then they will have to quickly review their options.

Iran's top negotiator and foreign minister both repeated on Friday that full sanctions lifting would be the only thing on the table in Vienna.

"If this is the position that Iran continues to hold on Monday, then I don't see a negotiated solution,' said one of the European diplomats.

Several diplomats said Iran was now between four to six weeks away from the "breakout time" it needs to amass enough fissile material for a single nuclear weapon, although they cautioned it was still about two years from being able to weaponise it.

Should the talks collapse, the likelihood is the United States and its allies will initially confront Iran at the IAEA next month by calling for an emergency meeting.

However, they will also want to try to keep Russia, which has political influence on Iran, and China, which provides economic breathing space to Tehran through oil purchases, on side as they initially seek alternative diplomatic options.

One scenario diplomats say Washington has suggested is negotiating an open-ended interim accord with Tehran as long as a permanent deal isn't achieved. However, they say that it would take time and there is no certainty Iran has any appetite for it.

"Iran may calculate that its unconstrained nuclear advances and unmonitored centrifuge production will put more pressure on the West to give ground in talks quickly," Eurasia analyst Henry Rome said in a note.

"But it will likely have the opposite effect, signalling that the new Iranian team does not have an interest in resolving the nuclear issue and hastening the switch toward a more coercive policy next year."

(Writing by John Irish; Editing by Mark Potter)

Moscow says 27 more Russian  diplomats due to leave US in January

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's ambassador to the United States said that 27 more Russian diplomats and their families were expelled from the United States and would leave on Jan. 30.

"Our diplomats are being expelled...A large group of my comrades, 27 people with families, will leave us on January 30... We are facing a serious staff shortage," Ambassador Anatoly Antonov said in a video interview for the Soloviev Live Youtube channel aired late on Saturday.

Russia has previously said that over 100 of its diplomats with families had been forced to leave the United States since 2016 when the relationship between the two countries worsened.

As of Oct. 29, nearly 200 Russian diplomats were still in their jobs in the United States, included the staff of the Russian mission to the United Nations, according to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

President Joe Biden's administration said last month that the staff of the U.S. mission in Russia had shrunk to 120 from 1,200 in early 2017 after a series of expulsions and restrictions, and it was difficult to continue with anything other than a caretaker presence at the embassy.

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow stopped processing non-diplomatic visas this year and added Russians to a list of "homeless nationals" who can apply for visas in third countries.

(Reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Fauci: US should be prepared to do 'anything,' including lockdowns, to fight Omicron

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States' top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said on Sunday that Americans should be prepared to do "anything and everything" to fight the spread of the new COVID-19 variant Omicron.

It is "too early to say" whether we need new lockdowns or mandates, Fauci told ABC News.

"You want to be prepared to do anything and everything," he said.

(Reporting by Heather Timmons; Editing by Mark Porter)

Happy Holidays!