The House has approved a sweeping measure to intervene in the nation’s housing market. The bill would help around 400,000 borrowers refinance their mortgages through government-insured loans. President Bush dropped his opposition to the bill after Democrats agreed to help bail out the nation’s two largest mortgage lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Bush had previously threatened a veto over nearly $4 billion in housing grants to troubled communities. The Senate is expected to take up the measure on Saturday.
The measure comes as new figures continue to underscore the severity of the housing crisis. The research firm RealtyTrac reports foreclosures in military towns are almost four times the national average. Foreclosures in ten towns and cities within ten miles of military bases in the US have risen by an average 217 percent, up from a national average of 59 percent.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, a fifty-three-year-old woman has committed suicide just hours before her home was to be foreclosed. On Tuesday, Carlene Balderrama faxed a suicide note to her mortgage company informing them she would kill herself by the time the auction for her home was set to begin later that day. Her body was found just one hour after she sent the fax. In another suicide note, Balderrama told her husband and son to use her life insurance money to pay off the mortgage.
In other news, the hourly federal minimum wage increases today to $6.59. The seventy-cent increase is the second of three enacted under a 2007 law that saw the first minimum wage hike in more than a decade. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage remains lower in real terms than it was both ten and forty years ago.
On Capitol Hill, congressional leaders are demanding the Bush administration withdraw a last-minute measure that would severely weaken regulation of workplace exposure to dangerous chemicals. The rule change calls for reexamining how to determine risks posed by workplace toxic exposure. The rule would also impose extra requirements before government officials can impose new limits in the workplace. In a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the Democratic chairs of the Senate and House labor committees, Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Congress member George Miller, said the Bush administration is trying to push through the changes before it leaves office.
Senator Barack Obama has wrapped up his Mideast tour. On Wednesday, Obama held a series of meetings with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem.
Senator Barack Obama: "I’m here on this trip to reaffirm the special relationship between Israel and the United States, my abiding commitment to Israel’s security and my hope that I can serve as an effective partner, whether as a United States senator or as a president in bringing about a more lasting peace in the region."
Obama also visited Ramallah for a low-key visit with Palestinian officials. He did not visit the Gaza Strip, where Israel has recently intensified its blockade. In Gaza, Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said Obama is offering no alternative to Bush administration policy in the region.
Sami Abu Zuhri: “These positions mean that there is no minimal hope to any change in the US foreign policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. And this means that we are in front of one American policy, and the Palestinian people should depend on their own and on the Arab and Muslim world in facing this opposing American policy, which both the Democratic and Republican parties are adopting."
The Senate has dropped an effort to penalize the oil giant Chevron for maintaining extensive ties to the military junta in Burma. This week, the Senate approved new trade sanctions against Burma but excluded a provision that would have eliminated a large Chevron tax break. Burmese activists had supported the provision to pressure Chevron to end its ties with the junta. Nyunt Than of the Burmese American Democratic Alliance said, “Unless Chevron is out of there, the United States doesn’t have the moral authority to tell other countries to get out.” California Senator Dianne Feinstein was among those opposing penalizing Chevron, because she says other companies would take its place anyway. The measure had been named after the late Tom Lantos, a Burma advocate and the only US lawmaker to have survived the Nazi Holocaust.
In Bolivia, President Evo Morales met with Assistant US Secretary of State Thomas Shannon on Wednesday to try to restore chilly relations. Morales has previously accused the Bush administration of trying to destabilize his government. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said Morales raised his allegations with Shannon.
Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca: "Regarding the conspiracy issue, President Morales addressed, over the course of twenty minutes and with the aid of documents, the political operation carried out and being carried out by the US embassy in Bolivia. The Bolivian government, President Morales himself, has requested the United States halt with its political conspiring in Bolivia and instead has posed working together to conspire against poverty."
Back in the United States, hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel oil spilled into the Mississippi River near New Orleans Wednesday after a tugboat collided with an oil tanker. The spill has stretches more than eighty miles and is threatening the fragile delta ecosystem. The tanker was carrying more than 419,000 gallons of thick industrial fuel oil. The accident came on the same day Senator McCain was scheduled to visit New Orleans to promote offshore oil drilling. McCain was planning to fly aboard a helicopter and land on an oil rig in the Gulf Of Mexico. McCain ended up canceling the trip.
In science news, the head of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute has issued what has been described as an unprecedented warning to his faculty and staff to limit cell phone use because of the possible risk of cancer. Dr. Ronald Herberman said children should only use cell phones for emergencies and that adults should keep the phone away from their heads by using a wireless headset or the speaker phone. According to the Associated Press, no other major academic cancer research institutions have sounded such an alarm about cell phone use. Devra Lee Davis, the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Environmental Oncology, said, “The question is do you want to play Russian roulette with your brain. I don’t know that cell phones are dangerous. But I don’t know that they are safe.”
Death row prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal has been dealt another legal setback. A federal appeals court in Philadelphia has refused to reconsider its decision not to grant a new trial for the jailed journalist. Abu-Jamal’s attorney said he will now ask the Supreme Court to consider the case.
And here in New York, dozens of people converged outside the headquarters of Fox News to protest its coverage of Barack Obama and African Americans. The rapper Nas helped deliver more than 600,000 signatures demanding changes at Fox News.
Nas: “This should outrage every American that Fox uses hateful language to talk about the person who may be the first black president. But the Obamas are not the only targets. Fox’s pattern is race-baiting and fear-mongering regularly, focuses on black leaders, black institutions and ordinary black people, like when they used the solemn occasion of Coretta Scott King’s funeral to call black leaders racist. That’s not acceptable. It’s offensive to black Americans. It’s offensive to all Americans. That’s why I wrote on my new album a song called 'Sly Fox': 'Watch what you watchin’/Fox keeps feeding us toxin/Stop sleepin’/Start thinkin'."
The campaign against Fox News was organized by Color Of Change.