By Thomas Ferraro WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress begins what promises to be another highly combative year on Monday with a showdown over a White House-backed bid to renew unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans. The battle will kick off a 2014 drive by President Barack Obama and fellow Democrats to stem a growing gap between rich and poor. The Democrat-led Senate plans to escalate the fight in coming weeks by bringing up for a vote a bill to increase the federal minimum wage, which has stood at $7.25 an hour since July 2009. Democrats want the minimum wage to rise over three years to $10.10 and then be indexed to inflation in the future.
The United States will support the Iraqi government and tribes fighting al Qaeda-linked Sunni Muslim militants in Anbar province but will not send U.S. troops back to Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday. Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda and tribal fighters have taken control of Ramadi and Falluja, the main cities in the Sunni Muslim-dominated province of Anbar, which adjoins Syria, in a serious challenge to the Shi'ite-led government's authority. Iraqi troops and allied tribesmen are trying to retake the province.
The public debate over the fate of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden intensified on Sunday with conservative Senator Rand Paul calling for a light prison term as punishment for Snowden's disclosure of information on government surveillance programs. Paul, a Republican, said in an interview on ABC's "This Week" that Snowden does not deserve the death penalty or life in prison for the leaks, which have rattled the U.S. intelligence community, not to mention an American public that had been unaware of the extent of NSA data collection. Instead, Paul spoke favorably of "some penalty of a few years in prison" if Snowden were to return to the United States from Russia, where he currently is living, to face trial. Paul, a freshman senator from Kentucky and a Tea Party favorite who has his eye on running for president in 2016, made his remarks a few days after a New York Times editorial said Snowden had done the United States "a great service" in divulging details of NSA surveillance.
By Arshad Mohammed JERUSALEM (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday the Israelis and Palestinians were making some progress in peace talks, though there was still a chance no accord would be reached. Speaking before he flew to Jordan and Saudi Arabia to brief them about his 10th set of meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Kerry said both sides had a sharper idea of the compromises needed to secure an agreement. "We have had very positive - but I have to say very serious, very intensive - conversations." Kerry said all of the major issues in the conflict - borders, security, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the status of Jerusalem - were under discussion. And it is becoming much more apparent to everybody what the remaining tough choices are," he said, adding he would not be flying to meet the kings of Jordan and Saudi Arabia if he did not believe both sides were grappling with the issues.
Secretary of State John Kerry voiced support for direct South Sudanese peace talks set to begin on Sunday and cautioned against any use of force to try to gain the upper hand. The government of South Sudan and representatives of rebel forces met on Saturday evening in Ethiopia for the formal inauguration of peace talks, part of the diplomatic effort to halt weeks of fighting in the young nation. They cannot be a delay gimmick in order to continue the fighting and try to find advantage on the ground at the expense of the people of South Sudan," Kerry told reporters during a visit to Israel. President Salva Kiir accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, of leading an attempted coup.