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04:56, 29 May 2017 Monday
Update: 09:40, 30 June 2012 Saturday

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US congress passes bill for transport jobs, student loans
US congress passes bill for transport jobs, student loans

The package prevents federal student loan interest rates from doubling to 6.8 percent on July 1, extends funding for the National Flood Insurance Program to Sept. 30, 2017.

World Bulletin/News Desk 

Congress gave final approval on Friday to a massive job-creating U.S. transportation bill that under a bipartisan deal will also keep interest rates low for millions of federal student loans and maintain federal flood insurance.

The Republican-led House of Representatives and Democratic-led Senate passed the measure on back-to-back votes, clearing the way for President Barack Obama to sign it into law.

In a rare display of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans embraced the measure largely because of $105 billion in transportation spending over the next 27 months that would create or save about 3 million jobs, a key issue in the Nov. 6 congressional and presidential elections.

"The construction sector is hurting," said Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, who led negotiations on the bill. "This was the answer."

The measure would also spare a potentially key voting block, about 7.4 million students, a doubling of interest rates on their federal college loans.

After months of negotiations and jockeying for political position, the House passed the bill, 373-52. The Senate approved it, 74-19.

The bill came together this week as lawmakers calculated the election-year impact of continued gridlock on measures affecting jobs, soaring consumer debt, and help for people who need government underwriting for flood risk to buy a home.

"It has indeed been a very bumpy road to get to this point," said John Mica, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, who led negotiations on the bill.

"I'm not particularly pleased with some of the twists and turns," he said on the House floor on Friday, describing the difficulties of reaching the deal in the gridlocked Congress.

After months of negotiations, the compromise was reached just days before the deadlines for an increase in student loan rates and for a lapse in transportation funding.

Ambitious proposals to shore up U.S. infrastructure gave way to a deal that basically keeps transportation funding at current levels.

The compromise was based on a bipartisan proposal developed by the Democratic-led Senate and was supported by the Obama administration.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the transportation funding would help put Americans to work fixing crumbling U.S. infrastructure.

"There is still much more that Congress can do to put Americans back to work, and the President will continue to call on them" to do this, he said on Air Force One as Obama flew to Colorado.

The federal government spends more than $50 billion annually on road, bridge and transit construction projects. The last transportation bill expired in 2009 and construction programs have survived since through a series of short-term funding extensions. The current one ends on Saturday.

Student loans, flood insurance

The package also prevents federal student loan interest rates from doubling to 6.8 percent on July 1. The one-year reprieve came at a cost of $6 billion.

The bill also extend funding for the National Flood Insurance Program to Sept. 30, 2017. It had been set to expire at the end of July, in the middle of hurricane season.

The flood insurance program took on a massive debt load during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and has been kept alive through repeated short-term extensions as lawmakers struggle with reforms.

Federal law requires that homes in designated flood-risk areas have flood insurance before a mortgage can be completed. Because the NFIP is effectively the only flood insurance available in the United States, a lapse in the program would mean home sales could not close in designated flood areas.

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Libya extremist group Ansar al-Sharia announces dissolution
Libya extremist group Ansar al-Sharia announces dissolution

The Libyan jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia, which is linked to Al-Qaeda and deemed a terrorist organisation by the UN and United States, announced its "dissolution" in a communique published online on Saturday. Washington accuses the group of being behind the September 11, 2012 attack on the US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi in which ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed. Ansar al-Sharia is one of the jihadist groups that sprung up in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, in the chaos following the death of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011. They overran the city in 2014. East Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar earlier this month launched an offensive to oust jihadist fighters from their two remaining strongholds in Benghazi. In its communique Ansar al-Sharia said it had been "weakened" by the fighting. The group lost its leader, Mohammed Azahawi, in clashes with Haftar's forces in Benghazi at the end of 2014. Most of its members then defected to the so-called Islamic State group. Ansar al-Sharia later joined the Revolutionary Shura Council of Benghazi, a local alliance of Islamist militias. At its zenith, Ansar al-Sharia was present in Benghazi and Derna in eastern Syria, with offshoots in Sirte and Sabratha, western Libya. The organisation took over barracks and other sites abandoned by the ousted Kadhafi forces and transformed them into training grounds for hundreds of jihadists seeking to head to Iraq or Syria.