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Senate Approves Bill on Training Syrian Rebels


Credit: Architect of the Capitol(WASHINGTON) --  The Senate passed a stop gap funding measure on Thursday night, which includes authorization for President Obama's plan to train and arm Syrian moderates in the fight against ISIS.

The Senate voted 78-22 on the continuing resolution, which will fund the government and authorizes Title X until December 11.

Many Republicans joined Democrats in voting for the continuing resolution, making this a rare bipartisan showing in the Senate.

“It’s a long overdue support for the brave Syrians who are fighting on the front lines against the terrorist enemy,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said.

“There is no guarantee of success. ... There is none but there is a guarantee of failure if we do not even try and try we must,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said of arming and training Syrian fighters against ISIS. “Despite my concerns about the underlying bill…I will support this resolution because I think it’s in the best interest of our national security.”

But several of the president’s biggest allies, including some with tough re-election fights this November, voted against the measure.

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, whose Republican opponent in the Alaska Senate race said he would support the president’s plan to arm the Syrian rebels, voted against the continuing resolution due to their opposition to training and arming the Syrian rebels.

“I disagree with my president,” Begich said. “The rebels of today may not be the rebels of tomorrow.”

Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate did not hold a stand-alone vote on the bill, many argued due to concerns of how it would play in the midterm elections this November.

The House had approved authorization to train and arm the Syrian rebels with a vote of 273 to 156 on Wednesday.

The authorization for training and arming the Syrian rebels will run out on December 11th, at which point Congress will have to decide whether it will reauthorize the plan. Sen Dick Durbin, D-Ill., indicated that the Senate will consider a new authorization for the use of military force in November when Congress returns for the lame duck session.

“We are going to take up the construction of a new authorization for the use of military force,” Durbin said. “It’s long overdue. We are living on borrowed time and we’re traveling on vapors. AUMFs passed in 2001 and 2002 are hard to wrap around today’s challenge.”

The continuing resolution now heads to the White House for President Obama’s signature and gives the president the green light to move forward with his plan to train and arm the Syrian rebels.

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Hillary Clinton Blames GOP for ‘Egregious’ Policies Toward Women


Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- During a panel at the Center for American Progress Thursday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s message was clear: Equal pay for women, access to affordable, quality childcare, paid sick leave, and the full participation by women in the U.S. labor force will lead to a stronger economy (even a 10 percent increase in the GDP, she argued).

But Clinton also made clear she believes politicians on “the other side of the aisle” are preventing any such policy changes from passing through.

“Congress increasingly, despite the best efforts of my friends and others, is living in an evidence-free zone where what the reality is in the lives of Americans is so far from the minds of too many who don’t place the highest priority on … family-centered economics,” Clinton said.

“We could all tell stories of people we know who had really egregiously been impacted by the failure of our political leadership on the other side of the aisle to recognize the importance of making sure that people who work hard, play by the rules, have a chance to get into the middle class and certainly a chance to stay in the middle class,” she added.

Thursday’s panel in Washington, D.C., which also included Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., focused on women’s economic security and finding solutions to what Gillibrand dubbed as Mad Men era policies that she believes still exists in the United States today.

One featured guest, a student and single mother from Chicago, described how she was laid off from her job at Whole Foods after she took a day off to pick up her son after his school cancelled classes in minus 30 degree weather.

Gillibrand said that lack of paid leave makes her “the angriest,” arguing that even Pakistan and Afghanistan have more paid leave than the United States. She said stories like this were “outrageous.”

The overall message among all the panelists was the notion that “the number one” thing the U.S. could do to make its economy stronger would be to tap into the full potential of women in the workplace. Without this support, Gillibrand argued, “we are providing an artificial drag on the economy.”

Clinton, however, was the most vocal of the women to slam Republicans for their resistance to change.

“I think the other side will hang on for all they’re worth -- Nancy [Pelosi] knows that better than anybody. But I think if voters, if citizens speak up for themselves, for their families and their futures, we will see the kind of changes we’re all advocating for,” Clinton said to audience applause.

While the panelists engaged in an amiable conversation about an issue they are all passionate about, the end took a bit of a competitive turn.

Pelosi teasingly called out Clinton (former senator of New York) for “bragging” that New York had the first women’s rights conventions at Seneca Falls in 1848. Pelosi reminded everyone that her state -- California -- had just celebrated its 10th anniversary with paid leave.

DeLauro then chimed in to defend her state too. “I just don’t want to pre-empt New York or California, but quite frankly Connecticut was the first state to have paid sick leave and to increase its minimum wage,” she quipped.

Clinton simmered down the group: “Competition is good on this one!” she yelled out, with a smile.

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CBP to Investigate Officer Misconduct, Test Body Cameras


iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- Responding to complaints of excessive force, Customs and Border Protection   Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske has announced the agency will now have the authority to conduct criminal investigations into misconduct within its ranks and will introduce the use of body cameras.

“This is something that has not existed in a pretty good number of years,” Kerlikowske said of Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson’s decision to give this authority to CBP.

“This is in conjunction with the office of inspector general. We now have the primary authority to conduct these independent internal criminal investigations. That authority translates to a more timely and a more transparent process to investigate misconduct,” Kerlikowske added.

In addition, the agency will also begin testing the use of body cameras next month for agents at their training facility in Artesia, New Mexico.

“We’ve purchased a number of different styles. As you know the border patrol works in some very difficult terrain [and] Artesia, New Mexico, where they train is one of the best places to practice this,” he said. “So we’ll be looking at what are the best cameras, what system works the best and then we’ll move on to other phases of field testing.”

The commissioner also announced the creation of an office of internal affairs, as well as an inter-agency board to review use of force incidents. He called the move a “significant step forward” in line with law enforcement's best practices.

The effort to change the agency comes as Kerlikowske works to increase transparency within the largest law enforcement agency in the United States.

The agency has come under scrutiny in recent years after multiple incidents of use of deadly force, including the cross border shooting of a teen in Senora, Mexico who was accused of throwing rocks.

According to the Arizona Republic, Border Patrol agents have shot to death 46 people in the past decade, 15 of whom were Americans.

Mark Morgan, interim head of Customs and Border Protection’s internal affairs office, announced last week that 155 cases of the 860 cases since 2009 merit further investigation.

“I’m very interested in making sure that cases that still have questions are answered, but I’m also very interested in making sure that we go forward with how we’re going to investigate cases in the future,” Kerlikowske said. “I think you have to put one into context. When I talk about us having that criminal investigative authority, we’re a large organization, we own this problem, and we own the responsibility to make sure that we’re doing a good job of investigating it.”

Responding to whether or not ISIS is a concern to infiltrate the southwest border, Kerlikowske told ABC News, “I think there’s always a concern on the terrorism front, we certainly are not seeing any organized attempt on the southwest border right now.”

“We review and look at well over now, 400,000 people that have been apprehended,” he said. “We watch very carefully and do extensive interviews with those people who have been apprehended.”

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First Lady Meets with Student Poets, Highlights Importance of the Arts


The White House(WASHINGTON) -- First lady Michelle Obama met with five members of the 2014 class of the National Student Poets Program on Thursday, touting the importance of the arts as "key to success...in school and in life."

The five poets, from grades nine through 11, were selected from a pool of National Medalists in Poetry through the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

"What these young people are doing doesn't just take talent, doesn't just take hard work," the first lady said, "it actually takes a lot of courage...to open your soul to the world."

Mrs. Obama thanked the students' parents and praised the poets for pushing through "endless drafts, the late night struggles with writer's block and all those moments, I'm sure, of fear and doubt."

The five selected poets read their poems aloud.

"The process for these young people isn't just about how they create great works of poetry...it's the key to success, period. In school and in life," Mrs. Obama said Thursday. "That's why it's so critical that every child has access to the arts in schools."

The first lady went on to call the arts "as essential as what [students] eat or drink or breathe in."

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Watch US Intel Chief James Clapper Try Stand Up Comedy


Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a normally serious guy, took on the role of comedian in front of a group of intelligence officials Thursday.

He talked about the high standards the public expects of the intelligence community these days.

"We are expected to keep the nation safe and provide exquisite, high-fidelity, time-accurate, anticipatory and relevant intelligence," he said. "And to do that in such a manner that there is no risk and no embarrassment to anyone if what we're doing is publicly revealed. And there is no threat to anyone's revenue bottom line. And there isn't even a scintilla of jeopardy to anyone's civil liberties and privacy, whether a U.S. person or foreign persons. We call this new approach to intelligence 'Immaculate Collection.'”

"Sorry, I couldn't resist," he added. "And by the way, we have to conduct Immaculate Collection on the cheap, too."

At the event in Washington, D.C., Clapper also unveiled the 2014 National Intelligence Strategy. An unclassified document, it lays out the intelligence environment and identifies emerging threats.

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House to Begin Six Weeks of Vacation, Campaigning


iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The House majority leader’s office announced Thursday that after the day's votes, the rest of the legislative business that had been previously scheduled will be cancelled, allowing lawmakers to jet back to their districts for six straight weeks of campaigning ahead of the midterm election.

The House was previously scheduled to be in session on Friday, and Sept. 29 through Oct 2.

As noted in the announcement, the schedule change is contingent on the Senate passing the Continuing Resolution. But that bill to fund the government -- and authorize U.S. military to train and equip vetted Syrian opposition forces -- is widely expected to pass through the Senate Thursday evening.

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Ukrainian President Pleads for Military Aid at US Capitol


NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke before a joint meeting of Congress Thursday, notably asking the United States to provide both lethal and non-lethal assistance to Ukraine, saying “one cannot win the war with blankets!”
 
“They need more political support throughout the world. They need more military equipment, both lethal and non-lethal, urgently need,” Poroshenko said to applause as he spoke to a joint meeting of Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol. “Please understand me correctly. Blankets, night vision goggles are also important but one cannot win the war with blankets.  Even more we cannot keep the peace with a blanket and this is most important of our values, of our aim, not to win the war, but keep the peace. For keeping the peace, we should be strong enough and there is not any doubt that we will be strong because of you. because our solidarity.”
 
Poroshenko’s address came just hours before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee marks up legislation that would impose new sanctions on Russia and provide military and non-military assistance to Ukraine.
 
The Ukrainian president skipped an entire section from his prepared remarks in which he thanked President Obama. The prepared remarks feature these lines, which he completely left out of his speech:
 
“I would like to thank the U.S. and all our partners for their support. I want to personally thank President Obama for the coherent position on Crimea annexation and support to Ukraine. The world remembers his words in Warsaw: ‘We will not accept Russia’s occupation of Crimea or its violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
 
Later Thursday, Poroshenko is slated to have lunch with Vice President Joe Biden and meet with President Obama in the Oval Office.

The White House Thursday announced that the U.S. will provide $53 million in additional aid to Ukraine, including $46 million in non-lethal security assistance.

In his speech, Poroshenko thanked Congress for its support and urged lawmakers to continue to stand in solidarity with Ukraine.

“I urge you not to let Ukraine, not to let Ukraine stand alone in the face of this aggression,” Poroshenko said.  “This is very important that the whole world will see this gesture of solidarity. Ukraine is not alone. We are together. We are united and we win because our fighting, is fighting for freedom, is fighting for democracy and I will absolutely no doubt that our victory will be very close. I’m absolutely sure that United States made the commitment it will stand behind Ukraine’s territorial integrity and we hope that it will live up to that promise.”
 
Closing out his speech, Poroshenko quoted New Hampshire’s motto “Live free or die!” saying it exemplified the tenacity of the Ukrainian people.
 
“Live free or die are words of Ukrainian soldiers standing on line of freedom of this war. Live free must be the answer with which Ukraine comes out of this war,” he said. “Live free must be the message Ukraine and America send to the world while standing together in this time of enormous challenge.”

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US Senate Candidate Gets Boost from "Game of Thrones" Author


Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call(WASHINGTON) -- Sen. Tom Udall’s campaign has enlisted the help of Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, who is holding a unique event for the incumbent senator’s re-election bid.

One winner and a friend will get to attend the exclusive VIP event with Udall, D-N.M., and Martin at Martin’s personal cinema in Santa Fe, where a “discussion on New Mexico issues and politics in support of Sen. Udall’s reelection campaign” will take place.

The minimum $5 donation for the contest gets the lucky winners airfare and hotel, along with VIP access to the main event, photo reception and dinner. General admission tickets start at $250, with additional meet and greet and photo reception tickets costing $1,000.

Big fans (and supporters) might be most interested in the $2,600 ticket option, which will give them VIP access to the event, photo reception and an exclusive dinner where they will “get to talk with George and Tom and ask them anything.”

 

Win a trip to meet George R.R. Martin and Senator Udall in Santa Fe. Enter here: http://t.co/gqPj0ohYQ4 #GRRM #GoT pic.twitter.com/mLG9CD8Vjs

— Tom Udall (@tomudall) September 18, 2014

 

A Game of Thrones, the first book of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, fantasy series was published in 1996. The series was adapted for television by HBO in 2011. Over seven million viewers watched the Game of Thrones season finale in June.

Both the senator and author are supportive of New Mexico’s conservation efforts. Earlier this year, Martin hosted a Prizeo fundraiser to benefit New Mexico’s Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary and the Food Depot of Santa Fe, which went on to raise over $500,000.

Martin is naming two characters in his upcoming novels after the highest donors.

Udall has served in the Senate since 2009, and is favored to win the election.

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Clapper Talks ISIS at Intelligence and National Security Summit


Alex Wong/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) -- ISIS is a group of "very sophisticated recruiters and motivators."

That's what Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told intelligence experts at the Intelligence and National Security Summit in Washington Thursday when asked about raids in Australia the day before that resulted in the arrests of 15 people involved in a terror plot connected to ISIS.

“It’s emblematic of the world we’re in -- a lot of the discussion about ISIL and the potential threat it may pose to the homeland.  People conjure up the image of another 9/11 attack or something of that magnitude," Clapper said. "…In this case with this group, who are very sophisticated recruiters and motivators…we continue to worry, I think, more than any other single threat -- you know the homegrown version, which are very hard to detect. So I think what’s happened in Australia is a manifestation of that threat.”
 
Clapper also unveiled the 2014 National Intelligence Strategy, which is entirely unclassified. It lays put the intelligence environment and tried to identify emerging threats. This year, Clapper put the code of professional ethics for intelligence gathering right in front in the report. It’s seven points are mission, truth, lawfulness, integrity, stewardship, excellence and diversity.
 
The DNI chief noted that AFPAK fighters in Syria, in terms of a threat to the homeland, perhaps pose the same threat as ISIS.
 
As for government funds that would be allocated to counterterror efforts, Clapper added that many people in government have high security clearances, which largely go unused, that cost the government large sums of money that could be better spent.

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GAO: Healthcare.gov Security, Privacy Weaknesses Still Exist


ABC News(WASHINGTON) -- An audit released by the Government Accountability Office on Wednesday says that some privacy and security flaws that existed when Healthcare.gov was launched still remain months later.

The GAO noted that many systems and entities must exchange information in order for users to optimally utilize Healthcare.gov to compare, select and enroll in private health insurance plans. When the website launched, it was notably full of security holes, glitches and errors that complicated users' efforts to sign up for health insurance.

In Capitol Hill testimony about the myriad problems with the site back in November, ABC News reported that "white hat hacker" David Kennedy highlighted for Congress that the beleaguered website, which cost hundreds of millions to launch, had critical flaws and exposures, "that hackers could use to extract sensitive information." Kennedy said at the time, "Just by looking at the website, we can see that there is just fundamental security principles that are not being followed," before physically demonstrating how easy Healthcare.gov was to hack. "We can actually...monitor [a user's] webcam, listen to their microphone, steal passwords...Anything that they do on their computer we now have full access to.," Kennedy advised.

In Wednesday's audit, the GAO notes that while the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have, "taken steps to protect the security and privacy of data processed and maintained by the complex set of systems and interconnections that support Healthcare.gov, weaknesses remain."

CMS, the GAO says, "did not and has not yet ensured a shared understanding of how security was implemented for the federal healthcare marketplace" among each entity involved. Until the CMS addresses the existing weaknesses, the GAO warns, "unnecessary risks remain of unauthorized access, disclosure, or modification of the information" users may input.

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House Authorizes US Military to Train, Equip Syrian Rebels


iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The House of Representatives voted Wednesday afternoon to approve President Obama’s request to authorize the U.S. military to train and equip vetted Syrian opposition forces.

By a vote of 273 to 156, the House easily passed the amendment, which was attached to a stop-gap spending bill to fund the government through Dec. 11. The bill was later passed by the House by a vote of 319 to 108.

Seventy-one Republicans and 85 Democrats opposed the vote on the Title X authority while 159 Republicans and 114 Democrats voted in favor of it.

The Title X authorization to aid Syrian opposition forces will expire at the latest by Dec. 11. If Congress clears a National Defense Authorization Act before that date, the authorization could expire even earlier.

Obama praised the passage of the authorization, calling the vote a step towards the U.S. making a "decisive difference" in confronting ISIS. He also urged the Senate to pass the bill "without delay," while affirming his previous statements that no U.S. troops will be on the ground in Syria, and all training will occur outside of the Syrian borders.

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US Troops in Iraq 'Will Not Have a Combat Mission,' Obama Insists


The White House(TAMPA, Fla.) -- Speaking to hundreds of military personnel in Florida, President Obama on Wednesday sought to reassure the people tasked with carrying out his new anti-terror strategy that “the American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission.”

“As your commander in chief, I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” the president told troops packed into a gymnasium at MacDill Air Force Base, after meeting with top commanders about the new strategy to counter the ISIS threat.

“After a decade of massive ground deployments, it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground so they can secure their own countries’ futures. And that’s the only solution that will succeed over the long term,” he said.

As the U.S. seeks to build an international coalition of support, the president reiterated “this is not and will not be America’s fight alone.”

“We’re not going to do this alone. And the one thing we have learned is that when we do things alone and the countries -- the people of those countries aren’t doing it for themselves, as soon as we leave we start getting the same problems. So we’ve got to do things different,” he said. “We cannot do for the Iraqis what they must do for themselves.”

Obama's remarks come one day after his top military adviser opened the door to possibly deploying U.S. ground forces in the fight against ISIS if airstrikes prove insufficient.

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

Dempsey is not alone. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned on Wednesday that “there will be boots on the ground if there's to be any hope of success in the strategy.”

“I think that by continuing to repeat that [there won't be troops on the ground], the president in effect traps himself,” Gates told CBS News.

“Sending our service members into harm’s way is not a decision I ever take lightly; it is the hardest decision I make as president,” Obama said in closing his remarks.

“Nothing else comes close. I do it only when I know the mission is vital to the security of this
country that we love. I do it only because I know that you’re the best there is at what you do,” he said.

Still, on Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that the president could consider sending advisors into combat situations on a case-by-case basis. “They would not be personally or directly engaging the enemy… in some cases they could be in positions to call in airstrikes,” Earnest said. “But as General Dempsey said yesterday, this has not yet been necessary."

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Phoenix Wait-Lists ‘Contributed’ to VA Deaths


ABC News(NEW YORK) -- Delays caused by secret waiting lists “contributed” to deaths at the Phoenix VA earlier this year, an assistant inspector general who helped draft a controversial Inspector General report admitted Wednesday under intense questioning by the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

The assertion by Dr. John Daigh comes less than a month after the Office of the Inspector General proclaimed in its official report that it is “unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely care caused the deaths of these veteran.”

Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., asked Daigh whether he could “conclusively assert that wait-lists did not contribute to the deaths of veterans?”

“No,” Daigh replied.

When asked whether he’d be “willing to say wait-lists contributed to the deaths,” Daigh responded,  “Yes.”

It was a startling admission, following complaints that the OIG softened the report at the VA’s request.  The sentence about being “unable to conclusively assert that the absence of timely care caused the deaths of these veterans” was not in the first draft of the report and only appeared in the final draft after the VA had a chance to review and comment privately on it.

Daigh also said that while he could not say “the delays caused the deaths,” he also could not say they didn’t.

That caused Jolly to ask him whether such was the case, and why put one assertion in the report but not the other.

“The issue is cause or, of course, a direct relationship, how tight of a relationship do you want? That’s where the difficulty is here,” Daigh said.

Daigh said earlier in the testimony “I’m not clairvoyant. It’s very difficult to know how someone died.”

The acting inspector general, Richard J. Griffin, added “We don’t know how they died or why. Nor do you, I would say that it may have contributed to their death, but we can’t say, conclusively, it caused their death.”

The Inspector General’s Office also suffered severe criticism from two whistle-blowers testifying before the Veterans Affairs committee. Dr. Samuel Foote and Dr. Katherine Mitchell scolded the OIG for downplaying the causation and link between wait times and deaths.

“I would like to use this statement to comment on what I view as the foot-dragging, downplaying and, frankly, inadequacy of the Inspector General’s Office,” Foote said.

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Obama, Biden Expected to Jointly Launch Campaign Against Sexual Assault on College Campuses


Official White House Photo by Pete Souza(WASHINGTON) -- President Obama and Vice President Biden will jointly launch a new campaign on Friday to increase awareness of sexual assaults on college campuses.

The campaign, called "It's On Us," is expected to include celebrity and professional athletes making an online and social media push. Notably, the campaign is believed to be aimed at men, as research indicates they are less likely to speak out against violence against women.

In April, a White House task force released a report that noted, "when men think their peers don't object to abusive behavior, they are much less likely to step in and help."

The White House is also expected to partner with colleges to help spread the word.

The White House task force is scheduled to unveil a model campus sexual assault prevention policy by the end of September.

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Joe Biden Refers to Asia as 'The Orient'


Official White House Photo by David Lieneman(DES MOINES, Iowa) -- Vice President Joe Biden described Asia as “the Orient’ in a speech in Iowa on Wednesday, hours after he apologized for using a word that could be perceived as anti-Semitic.

“You know, on the way back from Mumbai to go meet with President Xi in China, I stopped in Singapore to meet with a guy named Lee Kuan Yew, who most foreign policy experts around the world say is the wisest man in the Orient,” Biden said at the kickoff for the “Nuns on the Bus” tour.

The word “Orient” is considered widely outdated and could be perceived as offensive, or insensitive, especially when used in reference to people.

The Republican National Committee jumped on the remark, with its Asian-American spokesman Ninio Fetalvo saying in a statement, “Vice President Joe Biden’s insensitive remarks are offensive to both Asian-Americans and our Asian allies abroad.”

“His comment is not only disrespectful but also uses unacceptable imperialist undertones. It’s time for the vice president to apologize and to understand that his comments embarrass our country,” Fetalvo added.

Meanwhile, Biden apologized earlier Wednesday, saying he made a “poor choice of words” when he used the word “Shylock” to describe bankers who take advantage of U.S. troops returning from serving overseas. The word can be perceived as an anti-Semitic term.


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