Bush, Dems Agree on Economic Stimulus Deal

The Bush administration has reached a deal with House leaders on a $150 billion economic stimulus deal. Most of the money will go towards tax rebates. Individuals will receive $600, plus another $300 per child. Spending would also be boosted on credits for small business and government-backed home mortgages. At the White House, President Bush predicted a boost to the economy.

President Bush: "The incentives in this package will lead to higher consumer spending and increased business investment this year. Importantly, this package recognizes that lowering taxes is a powerful and efficient way to help consumers and businesses. I’ve always believed that allowing people to keep more of their own money and to use it as they see fit is the best way to help our economy grow."

President Bush dropped demands to make his previous tax cuts permanent. But in an interview with USA Today, Bush said he still hopes to achieve that goal before he leaves office. Democrats meanwhile agreed to drop several key demands. These include extending unemployment and food stamp benefits, and more funding for low-income heating assistance and Medicaid. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she has reservations about the deal but promised to revisit the issue if the economy continues to slide.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: "I think this is a remarkable package because it is about putting money in the hands of America’s working families. It is there to strengthen the middle class, to create jobs and to turn this economy around, and that is what is important about it. It is timely, it is targeted and it is temporary, and it was done in record time since our conversation with the President and, again, in a bipartisan way."

Congressional leaders say they hope to send a final bill to President Bush by February 15th.

Egypt Cracks Down on Palestinian Border-Crossing

Egyptian forces have begun cracking down on the flood of Palestinians seeking relief from the ongoing Israeli assault and blockade of Gaza. As much as half of Gaza’s population of 1.5 million people have streamed into Egypt since militants blew up parts of the border wall in Rafah. Earlier today, Egyptian riot police used water cannons to try to push back the crowds. Egypt says it plans to seal off the border later today. A Gaza resident said the population is only seeking to survive.

Resident: "We came to get food and diesel only to bring electricity to Gaza. We want to eat and drink, nothing more."

The desperation on the border comes as the Israeli assault on Gaza continues. Overnight, Israeli warplanes killed four alleged Hamas militants near the Rafah border. Israel has killed more than forty Palestinians in the past ten days. Aid officials continue to warn of a humanitarian crisis as Israel limits the supplies of fuel, food and medical relief. Israel says it’s taking action to stop Palestinian rocket attacks that have injured several Israelis. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Israeli President Shimon Peres said Gaza has in fact “blockaded itself.”

Israeli President Shimon Peres: "We don’t blockade, Gaza blockades itself. The minute they stop shooting, they won’t have any problems. We never started shooting at them. The minute they stop shooting at us, there will be a ceasefire."

Also in Davos, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa accused Israel of collective punishment.

Amr Moussa: "The Israelis have squeezed this sector and its population, starved them, stopped giving anything — energy or medicaments or food — and this is contrary to their obligations as the occupying power. You know, Gaza and the Palestinian territories are under the Israeli military occupation, and this should be ruled or governed by the international humanitarian law. There is a serious violation of that law by the Israeli forces. Therefore, the inhabitants couldn’t survive except by moving to Cairo, and Egypt has helped them. Of course, what else can we do."

10 Killed in Lebanon Bombing

In Lebanon, at least ten people have been killed in a Beirut car bombing. The apparent target, a Lebanese police captain, was among the dead. Lebanon has seen more than thirty car bombings over the last three years.

U.S. Pushes Iraq on Extending Troop, Contractor Immunity

The New York Times is reporting the Bush administration plans to insist the Iraqi government agree to effectively extend the legal immunity enjoyed by foreign contractors operating inside Iraq. The demand is one of several expected from the White House as it negotiates an extension of its UN-backed occupation mandate set to expire at the end of the year. Democrats are demanding congressional oversight over what it says amounts to a full-on treaty. The White House also wants to expand the immunity for all U.S. military and extend its authority to hold Iraqi prisoners.

Admin Not “Prepared to Address” Contractor Dependence

The demand comes as the Bush administration has told Congress it’s not equipped to oversee the contractors’ vital role in the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Speaking before the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Jack Bell said there were over 196,000 contractor personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan as of last September, more than the total number of troops. Bell said*: “We were not adequately prepared to address… this unprecedented scale of our dependence on contractors.”

Kucinich to Drop Out of Democratic Race

On the campaign trail, Congressmember Dennis Kucinich is expected to drop out of the Democratic presidential race today. In an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Kucinich cited the strain of campaigning and his exclusion from recent Democratic debates as a factor in his decision.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich: "There’s a point at which you just realize that it’s not going to happen. And so you move on. After being precluded from all the debates — yesterday I found out I couldn’t get into the one in L.A., because we made an effort there, I just have to recognize that — plus the polarization in the race, it makes it very difficult."

Kucinich is planning to run again for his congressional seat, which is being challenged by four other Democratic contenders.

Obama Up 13% in South Carolina Polls

The remaining Democratic presidential hopefuls are campaigning in South Carolina, where Senator Barack Obama holds a thirteen-point lead ahead of Saturday’s primary. On Thursday, Obama addressed recent criticism from former President Bill Clinton.

Sen. Barack Obama: "Let me dispose this whole issue of President Clinton. I have said this repeatedly, that he is entirely justified in wanting to promote his wife’s candidacy. I have no problem with that whatsoever. He can be as vigorous advocate of her as he’d like. The only thing I’ve been concerned about is when he makes misstatements about my record."

Both the Clinton and Obama campaigns agreed to pull negative ads from the South Carolina airwaves after a spat over Obama’s apparent praise of former President Ronald Reagan. Senator Hillary Clinton appealed to voters Thursday in Greenville, South Carolina.

Sen. Hillary Clinton: "I’m asking the people of South Carolina to take a chance on me, just like I asked the people of New York to take a chance on me back in 2000. I came and I said if you will give me a chance, I will work my heart out for you. You will have someone who gets up every day thinking about you. I’m not a show horse, I’m a work horse, and I will go to work for you."

New York Times Endorses Clinton, McCain

Clinton, meanwhile, has picked up an endorsement from the New York Times. In an editorial today, the New York Times calls her the most experienced candidate in the Democratic field. On the Republican side, the New York Times editors gave their backing to Arizona Senator John McCain. In a scathing rebuke, the Times editors call former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani “an obsessively secretive, vindictive man” whose “bad judgment” was “breathtaking.”

Senate Backs Telecom Spying Immunity

And the Senate has given a strong signal it will back President Bush’s plan to immunize major telecommunications companies that took part in government spying on U.S. citizens. On Thursday, Senators rejected a version of the surveillance bill that omits the immunity provision. The final vote was 60-36, with twelve Democrats joining Republicans in the majority.

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