House to Vote on Nearly $900B Stimulus Package

The House is expected to vote today on President Obama’s economic stimulus package, now approaching a price tag of $900 billion. On Tuesday, Obama met with congressional Republicans in an effort to muster bipartisan support.

President Obama: ”We’re still going to have to have much better financial regulation. We’ve got to get credit flowing again. We’re going to have to deal with the troubled assets that many banks are still carrying and that make the — that have locked up the credit system. We’re going to have to coordinate with other countries, because we now have a global problem. I am absolutely confident that we can deal with these issues, but the key right now is to make sure that we keep politics to a minimum.”

The Obama administration has agreed to several Republican demands, including a $69 billion proposal to exempt middle-income Americans from the so-called alternative minimum tax. Obama has also reportedly agreed to cut an expansion of contraceptive coverage under Medicaid.

Hundreds Flee Latest Israeli Bombings

In the Gaza Strip, hundreds of Palestinians have fled their homes amidst a new round of Israeli bombings in the town of Rafah. Israel says it’s targeting smuggling tunnels in response to an attack that killed one of its soldiers near the Gaza border on Tuesday. The bombings come as Middle East envoy George Mitchell is in Egypt on the first stop of his Mideast tour. Earlier today, Mitchell warned against the collapse of the informal ceasefire.

Middle East envoy George Mitchell: ”It is of critical importance that the ceasefire be extended and consolidated, and we support Egypt’s continuing efforts in that regard. The United States is committed to vigorously pursuing lasting peace and stability in the region. The decision by President Obama to dispatch me to come to this region less than one week after his inauguration is a clear and tangible
evidence of this commitment."

Gaza Sewage Plant Suffers Extensive Damage

In other news from Gaza, officials with the Palestinian Water Authority say they’re now two months behind on repairing a critical sewage plant because of damage from the Israeli assault. The officials say several air strikes badly damaged water pipes, and Israeli army bulldozers “deliberately destroyed” the chambers of five water basins. The plant was under emergency repair to prevent it from overflowing and endangering some 10,000 people. The repair was supposed to have been completed this week, but the damage from the Israeli attack means it won’t be done until at least March. The Independent of London reports the plant’s repair had been virtually the only development aid project allowed by Israel in the last eighteen months.

Gates Warns of Iran Role in Latin America

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is warning of what he calls Iran’s "subversive activity" in Latin America. Gates spoke Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates: ”I’m concerned about the level of, frankly, subversive activity that the Iranians are carrying on in a number of places, in Latin America, particularly South America and Central America. They’re opening a lot of offices and a lot of fronts, behind which they interfere in what is going on in some of these countries. To be honest, I’m more concerned about Iranian meddling in the region than I am the Russians.”

Report: Obama Admin to Pressure Karzai

Gates also addressed Afghanistan, where Obama is planning on escalating the US occupation.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates: ”There is little doubt that our greatest military challenge right now is Afghanistan. As you know, the United States has focused more on Central Asia in recent months. President Obama has made it clear that the Afghanistan theater should be our top overseas military priority."

Gates’s comments come as the Obama administration says it plans on taking a “tougher line” toward Afghan president Hamid Karzai. The New York Times reports White House officials now see Karzai as “a potential impediment to American goals” because of corruption in his government. But Karzai has also recently angered US officials by criticizing deadly US air strikes and demanding a timetable for a withdrawal of foreign troops.

9th World Social Forum Kicks Off in Brazil

In Brazil, more than 100,000 people are gathering for the ninth World Social Forum. A crowd of some 50,000 kicked off the event Tuesday with a march through the Amazon city of Belem. The World Social Forum gathers social movements from around the world under the theme of "Another world is possible." It’s timed to coincide with the gathering of corporate leaders in the Swiss town of Davos.

Secretly Recorded Phone Calls Played at Blagojevich Trial

In Illinois, the impeachment trial of Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich continued for a second day Tuesday. Blagojevich is boycotting the proceedings. State senators heard six minutes of tape in which Blagojevich discusses signing legislation in return for a campaign contribution. Blagojevich has said the tapes are being taken out of context.

Report: Bailed-Out Banks Joined in Planning on Defeating Union Bill

The Huffington Post has revealed at least two banks who received billions in taxpayer bailout money took part in a conference call on defeating a labor-backed measure that would ease barriers for workers to join unions. The October 17th call brought together representatives of several corporations, including Bank of America, just days after it received a $25 billion government bailout. The taxpayer-rescued AIG also took part. The call was organized to discuss defeating the Employee Free Choice Act, which would stop employers from demanding secret-ballot elections and require them to recognize unions if a majority of workers consented. During the call, participants urged donations for groups working to defeat the bill in Congress. Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus described the pro-union bill as “the demise of civilization.”

Bernie Marcus: ”To pay for the programs that they’re going to put in, they’re going to have to get the money somewhere. And the unions will go after anybody who works for a living and makes a living. There’s no question about it, that Joe the Plumber, whatever the hell he does for a living, is going to pay for this in the future, along with everybody else. Corporate taxes will go up along with everything else. And this is the demise of a civilization. This is how a civilization disappears. I’m sitting here as an elder statesman, and I’m watching this happen, and I don’t believe it."

An internal Bank of America document warned that the bill’s passage would increase retailers’ costs because of higher unionization. But it also conceded the bill would increase the “spending power of lower income consumers as this would be a de facto wage and benefit increase.” Stephen Lerner of the Service Employees International Union said, ”The biggest corporations who have created the problem are, at the very time, asking us to bail them out and then using that money to stop workers from improving their lives.”

Ex-Merrill Lynch CEO Subpoenaed in Bonuses Probe

Here in New York, former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain has been subpoenaed as part of a state probe into executive bonuses at firms that have received bailout money. Thain resigned this week following the disclosure he handed out $4 billion in bonuses a month ahead of schedule. The bonuses were approved just three days after shareholders OKed Merrill Lynch’s merger with Bank of America. Bank of America was given billions in additional bailout money for the takeover.

3 Indicted for Election Night Church Arson

In Massachusetts, three white men have been indicted on civil rights charges for burning a predominantly black church on election night. Law enforcement officials say the fire was intentionally set in response to President Obama’s win. The church was nearly finished with an expensive renovation when it was burned to the ground.

Man Pleads Guilty in Election Night Attacks

Meanwhile, one of three suspects charged for a string of election night hate crimes in New York has pleaded guilty. Brian Carranza faces up to ten years in prison. Two other suspects have pleaded not guilty and are free on bail. According to police, the three drove around Staten Island black neighborhoods on election night looking for victims to attack. A black Muslim teenager was beaten with a baseball bat, sending him to the hospital. They also attacked another black man, a Hispanic man, and drove down a white man they thought was an African American. The man spent more than a month in a coma.

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