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Kerry praises 'courageous' Iraqi voters defying extremists

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday praised the millions of Iraqis who "courageously voted" in general elections, saying many had acted "heroically" in standing up to militant threats. "With ink-stained thumbs, Iraqi voters sent a powerful rebuke to the violent extremists who have tried to thwart democratic progress and sow discord in Iraq and throughout the region," Kerry said in a statement. Queues had formed from early morning at tightly-guarded polling stations across Iraq despite a surge of violence before the elections targeting campaign gatherings and early voting by security personnel. They were the first parliamentary polls since US forces withdrew in December 2011, and some analysts had voiced fears that a wave of extremist violence which has killed 90 people in just two days would scare voters away.

Senate Republicans shoot down minimum wage hike

US Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked a hotly-contested measure to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, smothering President Barack Obama's priority effort to improve pay for working-class Americans. A united Democratic front convinced just one Republican, Bob Corker, to back the measure, and with a vote count of 54-42, it failed to earn the 60 votes necessary to overcome blocking tactics and begin debate on the bill. Democrats hope the emotional issue will propel supporters to the polls in November's mid-term elections, when Obama's party will find itself in a tough battle to hold on to the Senate. Even though the bill had little chance of passing a divided Congress, Democrats seek to capitalize on the effort, painting Republicans as out-of-touch elites unperturbed that those who work 40 hours per week at the current minimum wage of $7.25 still live in poverty.

Exclusive: Curbing tax-driven business moves abroad a priority - Treasury

The Obama administration is focused on finding ways to curb tax-motivated reincorporations to other countries by U.S. businesses, a U.S. Treasury official told Reuters on Wednesday. "Cracking down on companies that reincorporate overseas to reduce their U.S. taxes is a priority for the administration," a Treasury official said in an emailed statement. U.S. drugmaker Pfizer Inc said on Monday it has made takeover bids for UK rival AstraZeneca Plc in a possible deal to merge the two into a UK holding company with a UK tax domicile. Such deals, known as "inversion" transactions have been growing in popularity, and President Barack Obama's 2015 budget included a proposal to crack down on inversions.

Senators ready to try again on U.S. cybersecurity legislation

U.S. administration officials, private sector executives and privacy advocates are reviewing a draft of a bill that would encourage sharing of cybersecurity data between the government and companies, two key Senators said on Wednesday. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Vice Chairman Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, said they have circulated the draft to key stakeholders in its early stages to avoid the disagreements that have thwarted passage in the past. "We have worked together for months to draft a bill that allows companies to monitor their computer networks for cyber attacks, promotes sharing of cyber threat information and provides liability protection for companies who share that information," Feinstein and Chambliss said in a statement. Many companies have urged Congress to pass cyber legislation but ensure that it limits the private sector's liability in sharing cyber data.

US panel urges action on Pakistan religious freedom

An expert panel on Wednesday urged the United States to add Pakistan to a blacklist of violators of religious freedom, saying that the Ahmadi minority suffers "apartheid-like" conditions. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which advises the government on policy but does not take action on its own, urged the State Department to add Pakistan to its list of "countries of particular concern" subject to potential sanctions. In an annual report, the commission said Pakistan "represents the worst situation in the world for religious freedom" among countries that are not already on the US blacklist and that conditions in the past year "hit an all-time low." Robert George, chairman of the commission, voiced alarm over treatment of the Ahmadis, who were declared by Pakistan to be non-Muslims in 1974.

Progress on TPP deal with U.S. but a gap remains: Japan official

By Jonathan Spicer NEW YORK (Reuters) - Japan and the United States have made progress on a two-way trade deal but a gap remains and effort is needed to come to a final compromise, a top official in Japan's cabinet said on Wednesday. Yasutoshi Nishimura, senior vice-minister of the Cabinet Office, told reporters in New York the two countries were in the "last stretch" of a deal vital to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation bloc that would extend from Asia to Latin America. "The last stretch is not going to be easy." Nishimura, who is responsible for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic revival plan, said a deal on TTP was one of the pillars of its growth strategy. The growth plan, to be unveiled by the government in June, is the third of three so-called arrows after the Bank of Japan launched hyper-easy monetary policy and the government launched mass fiscal spending.

U.S. Senate to vote this year on campaign finance amendment: Schumer

By Gabriel Debenedetti WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate will vote this year on a proposed constitutional amendment that would let states and Congress regulate campaign finance laws, Senator Chuck Schumer said on Wednesday. The New York Democrat made the announcement weeks after a ruling on April 2 by the U.S. Supreme Court striking down aggregate campaign donation limits, a decision that could allow wealthy individuals to contribute even more to candidates and party committees. The proposed constitutional amendment, written by New Mexico Democrat Tom Udall, would empower Congress to regulate federal election spending and outside groups, and give states the chance to dictate their own internal campaign finance rules.