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10 things you need to know today: January 16, 2019

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Harold Maass
Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street
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1.

Attorney general pick William Barr pledges independence, protection for Mueller

President Trump's nominee for attorney general, William Barr, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that if confirmed he would remain independent, saying he had not and would not promise Trump any type of "assurances, promises, or commitments." Barr rejected claims often repeated by Trump that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election meddling and possible collusion by Trump campaign associates was a "witch hunt," although he said he understood how someone who felt wrongly accused could see it in those terms. Barr started his two-day confirmation hearing promising to let Mueller finish his investigation. Barr has criticized parts of Mueller's investigation in the past, and Democrats want assurances he will let Mueller work unimpeded. [The Washington Post]

2.

Theresa May faces no-confidence vote after humiliating Brexit defeat

British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a crushing defeat on Tuesday when the House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected her plan for Britain's withdrawal from the European Union. The 432-to-202 vote marked the biggest loss for a prime minister in such a parliamentary vote in recent British history. It thrust the Brexit process into chaos just 10 weeks before the U.K. is supposed to leave the European trading bloc. Immediately after the vote, the opposition Labor Party's leader, Jeremy Corbyn, announced that he was putting forward a motion of no confidence Wednesday due to what he called the "sheer incompetence of this government." May now has to quickly come up with a backup plan, although the EU has said the one lawmakers rejected is the only one it will accept. [The New York Times]

3.

Senate Republicans block Democrat bill seeking to end shutdown

Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked a request from Democrats to consider a package of bills already passed by the House seeking to reopen the federal government. One of the bills would fund departments and agencies affected by the partial shutdown, now in its 26th day, and keep them open through September. The other would fund the Department of Homeland Security for three weeks, without paying for President Trump's promised wall on the Mexican border. Trump has threatened to veto any spending deal that doesn't include wall funding. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blocked the bills, saying the solution to the standoff was "a negotiation between the one person in the country who can sign something into law, the president of the United States, and our Democratic colleagues." [The Hill]

4.

Judge blocks Trump administration's citizenship question on 2020 census

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked the Trump administration from adding a U.S. citizenship question to the 2020 census. Eighteen states, 15 cities, and civil rights groups challenged the census change in court, saying the question on citizenship would scare some immigrants and Latinos into excluding themselves from the count, undercounting noncitizens and legal immigrants who tend to live in Democratic areas and shifting federal funding and congressional power to Republican areas. U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross broke "a veritable smorgasbord" of federal rules when he added the question last year, hiding his true motivation and cherry-picking facts to support his decision. [The New York Times, Reuters]

5.

House denounces GOP Rep. Steve King over white supremacy remarks

The House on Tuesday voted 424-1 to rebuke Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) for racist remarks. A day earlier, House Republicans removed King from all of his congressional committee assignments and widely criticized him for asking in an interview with The New York Times: "White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?" King voted for the resolution of disapproval, which denounced white supremacist movements, saying his remarks had been misconstrued, and he knew white supremacy was evil. Only Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) voted against the resolution, saying it didn't go far enough and that King deserved the more severe punishment of formal censure. [Politico]

6.

Islamist extremists kill 14 in Kenya hotel attack

The Islamist extremist group al-Shabab on Tuesday claimed responsibility for an attack that killed 14 people at a luxury hotel in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, earlier in the day. Gunmen detonated explosives and shot people at cafe tables and offices. Witnesses said they saw several bodies surrounded by blood, broken glass, and burning vehicles. "It is terrible. What I have seen is terrible," said survivor Charles Njenga, who managed to run away. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said Wednesday that security forces had killed the attackers and secured the complex. "All the terrorists have been eliminated," he said. Al-Shabab is the Somalia-based group that was behind a 2013 attack at Nairobi's Westgate Mall. Sixty-seven people died in that attack. [The Associated Press]

7.

Venezuela Congress calls Maduro actions null and void

Venezuela's opposition-run Congress on Tuesday declared President Nicolas Maduro a "usurper" of democracy, and said his actions during his disputed second term would be considered null and void. Maduro was sworn in last week despite widespread claims that the 2018 election he won was fraudulent and his victory illegitimate. Countries around the world have disavowed Maduro's government. The U.S. and many Latin American nations say Maduro has become a dictator, and his failed, state-led socialist policies have driven the South American nation into its worst economic crisis ever. President Trump is considering recognizing the leader of the Congress, Juan Guaido, as Venezuela's legitimate leader, CNN reported, citing three unidentified sources. [Reuters]

8.

Judge rejects request to make government pay workers during shutdown

A federal judge in Washington on Tuesday declined to force the government to pay federal employees working through the partial government shutdown. Labor unions representing federal workers said the policy violates laws against unpaid work, and the Constitution. Employees deemed essential are working without pay through the shutdown, but like their furloughed colleagues, they will receive compensation once spending bills are passed and signed by President Trump. U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said it would be "profoundly irresponsible" to issue an order that would force the government to send more employees home. "At best it would create chaos and confusion," Leon said. "At worst it could be catastrophic ... I'm not going to put people's lives at risk." [The Washington Post]

9.

Gillibrand joins race for Democratic nomination to challenge Trump

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand announced Tuesday that she is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge President Trump in 2020. Gillibrand said she would push to make health care a right, not a privilege, and battle institutional racism and corruption. "As a young mom, I'm going to fight for other people's kids as hard as I would fight for my own," Gillibrand said on CBS's The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Gillibrand is the second senator to enter the race, following Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who announced an exploratory committee Dec. 31. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard also have entered what is expected to be a crowded field. [NPR]

10.

Trump administration recalls more furloughed workers as shutdown continues

As the partial federal government shutdown drags on, the Trump administration on Tuesday said it was calling thousands of furloughed workers back to work without pay. The government has called in thousands of aviation safety inspectors and hundreds of food, drug, and medical inspectors. The Internal Revenue Service, which initially kept just 9,946 workers on the job, said Tuesday it is recalling 46,052 employees, or half its work force, to work without pay in case the shutdown is still in place when tax season begins Jan. 28. Other agencies have brought back smaller numbers of employees, including dozens of Interior Department workers needed to work on selling Gulf of Mexico drilling leases critical to President Trump's promotion of U.S. fossil fuel production. [Politico, The New York Times]