The House has approved President Obama’s more than $800 billion economic stimulus package. The vote was entirely on party lines, with not a single Republican supporting the bill. Obama says the package would create more than three million jobs. Hours before the vote, Obama met with corporate leaders at the White House.
President Obama: “As we discussed in our meeting a few minutes ago, corporate America will have to accept its own responsibilities to its workers and the American public. But these executives also understand that without wise leadership in Washington, even the best-run businesses can’t do as well as they might."
The measure now goes before the Senate with debate beginning on Monday. The price tag of the Senate version is approaching $900 billion as senators continue to add earmarks. Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia has included a provision that would provide $4.6 billion for the coal industry.
The debate over the stimulus package comes as the International Monetary Fund has warned the global economy will see its lowest growth since the Second World War.
IMF Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard: “We expect the global economy to come to a virtual standstill in 2009. There are important differences across countries. In the advanced economies, we basically forecast the sharpest contraction in the post-war period."
Israel continues to bombard areas of Gaza despite its declaration of a ceasefire. Earlier today, at least nine Palestinians, including seven girls, were wounded in an Israeli air strike on Khan Younis. The attack came hours after Israel also attacked a metal foundry in the town of Rafah. Israel says it’s responding to a small number of rocket attacks from Gaza that haven’t caused any injuries.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government is claiming it will continue to close Gaza’s border crossings until the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit is released. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert laid out the condition in a meeting with Middle East envoy George Mitchell. Shalit was captured in 2006 from an area near the Gaza border where Israel has launched countless attacks. Israel has banned all imports and exports from Gaza and only allows a limited number of humanitarian goods. After the meeting, Mitchell called for expanding the recent ceasefire.
Middle East envoy George Mitchell: “As the Prime Minister and I discussed, of critical importance is consolidating the ceasefire, including a cessation of hostilities, an end to smuggling and the reopening of the crossings based on the 2005 agreement. President Obama has said that the United States is committed to Israel’s security and to its right to defend itself against legitimate threats. The President has also said that the United States will sustain an active commitment toward reaching a goal of two states living side by side in peace and security."
Mitchell is set to meet Palestinian leaders from the Fatah party on the West Bank today. But he has no plans on meeting democratically elected Hamas officials in Gaza.
Meanwhile, hours before Mitchell arrived, the Israeli group Peace Now issued a report showing Israeli settlement activity on the occupied West Bank has increased for another consecutive year. More than 1,200 new structures were built in 2008, an increase of 57 percent.
Yariv Oppenheimer of Peace Now: “We can see expansion of existing settlements, of existing illegal outposts. We can see that the construction is all around the West Bank, not only in the settlement blocs, but also in the small isolated settlements in the heart of the West Bank."
The World Court has ruled all Israeli settlements are illegal. In 2001, Mitchell led a US commission that became the basis for the “road map,” which calls for a freeze to all Israeli settlement expansion.
Meanwhile, a European Union official has indicated for the first time the EU might break from the US-backed boycott of Hamas. Speaking in Jerusalem, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said the EU would deal with a Palestinian unity government including Hamas, if Hamas accepted a two-state solution.
Javier Solana: “It has to be a team of people that will continue trying to obtain what is the desperation of so many people, which is two states and two states that can live together and, at the same time, that they can live together in the context of a very important initiative taken by the Arab League, which is the Arab peace initiative. Those who can work in that direction, of course, they have to be helped and supported."
The new stance would break from Israel and the US, which has demanded Hamas also recognize Israel’s right to exist and renounce violence. But Israel has refused to adopt the same conditions toward Palestinians.
Solana’s comments come as Hamas officials continue to repeat they’d accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. In an interview with the Associated Press, Hamas spokesperson Ghazi Hamad said, “We want to be part of the international community. I think Hamas has no interest now to increase the number of crises in Gaza or to challenge the world.” Hamad continued, “We accept a state in the ‘67 borders. We are not talking about the destruction of Israel.”
The UN’s top nuclear watchdog is boycotting the BBC over its refusal to broadcast an appeal by aid agencies for Palestinian victims of Israel’s recent military actions in Gaza. International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei says he’s canceled planned interviews with the BBC, saying it has violated “basic human decency.” The three-minute appeal came from groups including the Red Cross, Oxfam, Save the Children, and Christian Aid and aired on other British networks this week.
In Sri Lanka, the UN is warning some 250,000 civilians are trapped in clashes between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil rebels. The civilians have fled amidst escalating fighting that has left some 300 dead over the past week. Another 1,000 people have been reported wounded. The UN has accused the Sri Lankan government of indiscriminate bombing, including an attack on a government-declared “safe zone” over the weekend.
In Iraq, tens of thousands of people have cast early ballots ahead of this weekend’s provincial elections. It’s Iraq’s first national vote since 2005.
In other Iraq news, the Iraqi government has announced it will refuse to renew the operating license for the private military firm Blackwater Worldwide. Iraq says it also won’t allow Blackwater guards accused of wrongdoing to work for other companies. An Interior Ministry spokesperson said Blackwater will be ordered to leave Iraq as soon as Iraqi and US officials complete a new set of rules governing private contractors. The State Department employs Blackwater to guards US officials and installations. In 2007, Blackwater guards killed seventeen Iraqi civilians in an unprovoked massacre in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square.
The Guardian of London is reporting the Obama administration has drafted a letter to the Iranian government offering improved relations. The letter is said to assure Iranian leaders the US is not trying to overthrow their government.
The news comes as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran would be open to talks with the US if it apologized for past actions. Ahmadinejad called on the White House to apologize for the US-backed coup that overthrew Iran’s nationalist government in 1953 and the shooting down of an Iranian passenger plan in 1988.
The CIA’s station chief in Algeria is under investigation for drugging and raping two Muslim women. According to ABC News, two Algerian women independently accused Andrew Warren of lacing their drinks with a knock-out drug before the alleged rapes occurred. Warren was recalled back to the US after the allegations were made in October.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved Eric Holder’s nomination for Attorney General, sending it before the full Senate. The vote comes as Holder has denied a report he told a Republican lawmaker he won’t prosecute Bush administration officials linked to torture. Senator Christopher Bond of Missouri told the Washington Times that Holder had given him the assurances. Bond also said Holder had told him he won’t try to revoke the retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies involved in wireless spying on US citizens. An aide to Holder is denying Bond’s claims.
In Pennsylvania, two judges are being accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes in return for placing youths in privately owned jails. Luzerne County President Judge Mark Ciavarella and Senior Judge Michael Conahan are said to have received $2.6 million for ensuring juvenile suspects were jailed in prisons operated by the companies PA Child Care and a sister company, Western PA Child Care. Some of the youths were jailed over the objections of their probation officers. Philadelphia’s Juvenile Law Center says it’s considering a class-action suit on behalf of several jailed youths.
In labor news, the percentage of American workers belonging to unions has grown for the first time in years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says the number of unionized workers grew by 428,000, to 16.1 million.
Meanwhile, the executive of the Service Employees International Union has taken over one of its largest locals, California’s 150,000-member United Healthcare Workers-West, after a more than year-long dispute. The SEIU has removed the local’s leadership, which has vocally criticized SEIU president Andy Stern. Critics have accused Stern of ignoring overwhelming opposition from local members. The local says it plans on forming a new union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers.
The US Postal Service has announced it wants to cut mail delivery from six to five days a week. Postmaster General John Potter says the move would address a growing deficit, with the postal service facing a $6 billion loss this year.