On Capitol Hill, Republicans scored a major victory Wednesday with the slim passage of a budget bill that slashes billions of dollars from health, education, and welfare programs. The bill will impose fees and scale back benefits for millions of low-income Medicaid recipients. A recent Congressional study predicted the bill would deny medical services and drugs to millions of low-income Americans unable to afford the new premiums. The vote passed by a margin of 216 to 214. Thirteen Republicans joined all House Democrats in opposition. The Senate has already approved the bill, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the decisive vote, in December.
Republicans hailed the bill for cutting nearly $40 billion dollars from the federal deficit. But the Washington Post notes its impact "is likely to be negligible, slicing less than one-half of 1 percent from the estimated $14.3 trillion in federal spending over the next five years." The Los Angeles Times observes that the spending cuts are more than offset by the $56-billion dollar tax cut passed by the House last year. The Senate is currently debating that measure. Taken together, the two bills would result in adding $16 billion dollars to the federal deficit.
Meanwhile, the House approved a measure Wednesday to extend the USA Patriot Act until early March. The vote marked the second time in just over a month Congress has granted the Act a temporary reprieve. A long-term extension has been held up over bi-partisan concerns the legislation lacks adequate safeguards for civil liberties.
In other news, the White House is refusing to comply with a Senate Judiciary Committee request it hand over its own legal opinions on President Bush’s domestic spying program. According to the New York Times, Justice Department officials said the opinions were irrelevant because the administration has already publicly laid out its legal defense for the program. But Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said: "Without the Justice Department memos and without more witnesses, it’s hard to se how anything other than a rehashing of the administration line is going to happen. I am worried that these hearings could end up telling us very little when the American people are thirsty to find out what happened here." The committee is set to hold its first public hearing on the program Monday.
Meanwhile, a civil liberties group is suing telecom giant AT&T over its alleged role in assisting the National Security Agency spy on the phone calls and messages of US citizens without court warrants. The suit, filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation — EFF — in U.S. District Court Tuesday, claims AT&T provided the NSA with extensive access to its networks and databases. EFF attorney Kevin Bankston said: "Our main goal is to stop this invasion of privacy, prevent it from occurring again and make sure AT&T and all the other carriers understand there are going to be legal and economic consequences when they fail to follow the law."
Just one day after President Bush drew headlines for pledging to reduce the country’s reliance on Middle Eastern oil by 75 percent by the year 2025, two top administration officials said Bush’s promise was not meant literally. In a conference call with reporters, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman told reporters the President was giving "purely an example" when he spoke about making dependency on Middle Eastern oil "a thing of the past." Bodman, speaking alongside Presidential adviser Dan Bartlett, said President Bush really meant that alternative energy could take the place of the amount oil the US is expected to import from the Middle East in 2025. An administration official told Knight Ridder the President used the words "the Middle East" only so he could illustrate the issue in way that "every American sitting out there listening to the speech understands."
In other news, the oil conglomerate Royal Dutch Shell has announced annual profits of over $22 billion — the most ever for a company listed in the Britain. The announcement comes just days after rival oil giant ExxonMobil reported a record-breaking $36 billion profit–a sum larger than the economies of 125 countries.
In Iraq, USA Today is reporting the US has failed to open any health clinics in the country — despite initially promising to open 180 clinics by last December. Iraq’s deputy health minister said the US has completed construction on only four clinics.
Back in the United States, a non-partisan Congressional investigative body has singled out Department of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff for the government’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina. In a preliminary report, the Government Accountability Office said: "We continue to believe that a single individual… [should] lead and coordinate the overall federal response in the event of a major catastrophe." The report went on to say, "Neither the DHS Secretary, nor any of his designees ... filled this leadership role during Hurricane Katrina."
In West Virginia, Governor Joe Manchin has called for a state-wide moratorium on all coal mining after two miners died Wednesday in separate incidents. The moratorium will be in effect until inspectors complete thorough safety checks at the mines. Gov. Manchin said: "We’re going to check for unsafe conditions, and we’re going to correct any unsafe conditions before we mine another lump of coal." Wednesday’s deaths brought to 16 the number of mining-related fatalities in West Virginia already this year.
In Los Angeles, the FBI has launched a civil rights investigation into a police officer caught on videotape shooting an unarmed veteran of the Iraq war. The incident occurred Sunday night. Elio Carrion, an Air Force police officer, was riding in the passenger seat of a vehicle that failed to pull over on police orders. The vehicle then crashed outside of a nearby home. On the videotape, Carrion is seen following an officer’s demand to get up off the ground — but is then shot three times. He is reportedly in the hospital in good condition. The police officer has been put on a temporary leave of absence.
One day after Cindy Sheehan was arrested for wearing an anti-war T-shirt to President Bush’s State of The Union address, Capitol police have dropped her charges and apologized. Sheehan, whose son Casey died in combat in Iraq in April 2004, was removed from the House gallery Tuesday night after unveiling a T-shirt that read: "2,245 dead and how many more?" — a reference to the number of US service members killed in Iraq. In a statement, Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer said Sheehan should not have been arrested. President Bush began his speech shortly after she was removed.
And in Greensboro, North Carolina, seven protesters are facing charges after being arrested Tuesday night during a State of the Union protest. The protesters reportedly got into an altercation with an undercover police officer who was photographing protesters. The Greensboro demonstration was one of 68 protests held around the country Tuesday night calling on Bush to step down. The main group behind the protests — World Can’t Wait — is also organizing a protest on Saturday in Washington.