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Tunisian President Kais Saied said on Wednesday

Opgavebeskrivelse

Tunisian President Kais Saied said on Wednesday that "wrong economic choices" had caused major financial problems in his first comments on the economy since using emergency powers to seize control of government late on Sunday.

In a meeting with the head of the UTICA business union shown in a video distributed by the presidency, Saied indicated a coming crackdown on corruption cases but said there was "no intention to harm or abuse" business people.

He said 460 people had stolen 13.5 billion dinars ($4.8bln) from Tunisia and offered a "penal settlement" if they returned the money.

"I propose a penal reconciliation with businessmen involved in looting the people's money and tax evasion in exchange for their commitment to projects ... instead of being prosecuted and imprisoned," said Saied, a former law professor who came to office in 2019 campaigning against corruption and an entrenched political elite.

Saied did not elaborate on his proposal.

When he seized government powers on Sunday, a move denounced by opponents as a coup, he also said he would take over public prosecutions and removed immunity from members of parliament.

Economic stagnation, with successive governments pulled between the competing demands of foreign lenders and a powerful labour union, has contributed to growing public anger before Saied's move on Sunday.

In his meeting with UTICA head Samir Majoul the president also called on traders to reduce prices and warned them not to hoard goods or speculate, saying violations would be prosecuted.

After his declaration, Tunisian bond prices fell sharply on Monday.

A roughly $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure investment bill advanced in the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, passing a key milestone that moves the emerging legislation toward formal debate and possible passage.

The Senate voted 67-32 to take the first procedural step toward debating the measure that has the support of Democratic President Joe Biden.

The bipartisan agreement, which follows months of negotiations, gained the support of all 48 Democrats, two independents and 17 Republicans on this first procedural vote.

Additional procedural votes and debate on the bill itself were expected, possibly into the weekend or beyond.

Democrats intend the bill -- which includes funding for roads, bridges, broadband and other physical infrastructure -- to be the first of a pair of packages, followed by a sweeping $3.5 trillion "human infrastructure" package that faces staunch Republican opposition and some dissent among moderate Democrats.

Democratic Senator Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Senator Rob Portman, the two lead Senate negotiators, announced Wednesday's agreement separately to reporters.

Republicans blocked a similar move last week, saying details were not nailed down. In the latest bill, details on transit and broadband were still being finalised but lawmakers said legislative text would be completed soon.

"We're excited to have a deal," Sinema said. "We've got most of the text done, so we'll be releasing it and then we'll update it as we get those last pieces finalized."

The agreement includes $110 billion for roads, $73 billion for power grid spending, $66 billion for railways, $65 billion to expand broadband access, $55 billion for clean drinking water, $50 billion for environmental resiliency, $39 billion for public transit and $25 billion for airports, the White House said.

Addressing a concern over funding among Republican lawmakers including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Portman said the package is "more than paid for" and added: "We look forward to moving ahead and having a healthy debate."

Officials said the package would be financed through a combination of measures. The largest was redirecting $205 billion in COVID-19 relief funds. Another was recouping $50 billion in fraudulently paid unemployment benefits during the pandemic and getting states to return unused federal unemployment funds, raising another $50 billion.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said he was investigating whether COVID-19 spending on hospital and nursing home providers is being tapped, with hospital admissions from the highly contagious Delta variant on the rise. "I'm gathering facts," he said.

Biden's agenda

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The bipartisan bill is a key component of Biden's larger domestic policy agenda. Democratic leaders plan to move ahead with a sweeping $3.5 trillion budget "reconciliation" package. Republicans have vowed to oppose that effort, and Sinema appeared lukewarm about it in remarks to the Arizona Republic newspaper in her state on Wednesday.

The bipartisan bill will propose $550 billion in new spending, a White House fact sheet said, down from $579 billion in a framework the negotiators sketched out several weeks ago.