President Obama has signed his first piece of legislation into law, reversing a Supreme Court ruling that blocked women from filing pay discrimination lawsuits. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is named for a female employee of the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company who was paid 40 percent less than male colleagues doing the same job. Ledbetter lost her suit against Goodyear after the court ruled she did not file a complaint on time.
President Obama: “This is only the beginning. I know that if we stay focused, as Lilly did, and keep standing for what’s right, as Lilly did, we will close that pay gap, and we will make sure that our daughters have the same rights, the same chances and the same freedoms to pursue their dreams as our sons."
Meanwhile, President Obama has criticized Wall Street following news financial executives received an estimated $18.4 billion in bonuses last year. The average payout amounted to $112,000.
President Obama: “When I saw an article today indicating that Wall Street bankers had given themselves $20 billion worth of bonuses, the same amount of bonuses as they gave themselves in 2004, at a time when most of these institutions were teetering on collapse and they are asking for taxpayers to help sustain them, and when taxpayers find themselves in the difficult position that if they don’t provide help, that the entire system could come down on top of our heads, that is the height of irresponsibility. It is shameful."
Although bonuses declined from 2007, the $18.4 billion equaled the same amount paid in 2004.
Meanwhile, here in New York, Major League Baseball’s New York Mets are facing calls to cancel a $400 million stadium naming rights deal with Citigroup. Congress members Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Ted Poe of Texas are demanding the annulment of a contract naming the new Mets stadium CitiField. Kucinich said, “It’s totally unacceptable that Citigroup should be able to spend $400 million in naming rights when they’re the recipients of a massive federal bailout.”
A new study has found the lobbying industry pulled in record amounts last year. The Center for Responsive Politics says special interest groups paid lobbyists $3.2 billion in 2008, the most ever on record, and a 13 percent increase from 2007. The total amounts to more than $17 million for every day Congress was in session last year. More on lobbying later in the broadcast.
The Senate has passed a measure expanding government health insurance for low-income children. The $33 billion State Children’s Health Insurance Program measure would be funded in part by a tax increase on cigarette packs. The House passed its version of the SCHIP expansion earlier this month. Former President George W. Bush twice vetoed similar measures, but President Obama has vowed to sign it into law.
In Illinois, Governor Rod Blagojevich has been removed from office in a unanimous impeachment vote. On Thursday, the State Senate voted 59-to-0 to impeach Blagojevich for abuse of power. Blagojevich was indicted last year on bribery and wire fraud charges. The allegations included trying to sell President Obama’s vacant Senate seat to the highest bidder. The impeachment vote came shortly after Blagojevich ended his boycott of the proceedings and tried to plead his case.
Rod Blagojevich: “There is no evidence before your body here that shows — no evidence, zero — that there was any wrongdoing by me as governor. And again, if you give me a chance to be able to bring witnesses in, I can show you not only that I didn’t do anything wrong, I can show you that I did a lot of things that were mostly right and that some of the things that are being said about me simply aren’t true."
Illinois Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn has taken over from Blagojevich as Illinois governor.
The Israeli government has admitted its most recent peace offer to Palestinian negotiators would still leave more than 200,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank. The offer was made in talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. In meetings with US envoy George Mitchell, both Olmert and Abbas confirmed the Israeli offer would remove just 60,000 settlers of the 290,000 in the West Bank. The remaining 230,000 settlers would stay in the large settlement blocs that nearly cut the West Bank in half. Not a single Palestinian refugee would be granted the right to return to their former home in Israel. Palestinians were offered an equal amount of Israeli land in return and shared sovereignty over parts of East Jerusalem. But the settlements are widely considered illegal under international law and a non-starter for many Palestinians. Palestinian negotiators reportedly refused a demand to sign off on the deal that would then be handled by the winner of the upcoming Israeli elections.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is leading polls and has rejected any territorial concession to the Palestinians. And even though the offer would still ensure Israeli control over key settlement blocs, Netanyahu’s opponent, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, has distanced herself from the proposal as being too generous. Livni said, “I will advance only an agreement that represents our interests. Maintaining maximum settlers and places that we hold dear such as Jerusalem — not a single refugee will enter.” Meanwhile, Mitchell continued his Mideast tour with meetings in the occupied West Bank. On Thursday, Mitchell sat down with Abbas in Ramallah.
Middle East envoy George Mitchell: “To be successful in preventing the illicit trafficking of arms into Gaza, there must be a mechanism to allow the flow of legal goods, and that should be with the participation of the Palestinian Authority. President Obama has also underlined our commitment to a better future for all Palestinians, whose legitimate aspirations for an independent and viable state should be met.”
Mitchell’s visit comes amidst reports the Israeli government has deliberately hidden its own data showing rapid construction in West Bank settlements. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports an internal government survey found construction in three out of four settlements was conducted without proper permits and, in many cases, on private Palestinian land. The Israeli group Peace Now said this week settlement expansion grew 57 percent last year. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Abbas told Mitchell that Israel’s blockade of Gaza and its expanding West Bank settlements are the main obstacles to peace.
Saeb Erekat: “For the Israelis to continue their settlement activities and at the same time to continue trying to separate between the West Bank and Gaza, because we believe that the Israeli attacks and aggression against Gaza — one of the objective is to keep the West Bank separated from Gaza, and this cannot stand. The West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem are a single territorial unit that’s the territory of the Palestinian state, and we will spare no effort, as President Abbas told Mr. Mitchell, to pursue, with the assistance of our Egyptian brothers, the path of national reconciliation."
Mitchell won’t be traveling to Gaza, as the Obama White House continues the Bush administration’s boycott of the democratically elected Hamas government. In Gaza, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh urged Obama to break with Bush policy.
Ismail Haniyeh: “To build relations, as President Obama said, with the Arab and Islamic world stemming from mutual respect and mutual interests, we say the gate to this relationship with our Arab and Islamic world is from Palestine, from the Palestinian cause and from the need of a change in the US policy when it comes to the Palestinian rights and their suffering."
The UN,meanwhile, has launched a new humanitarian appeal to help rebuild Gaza and aid victims of the Israeli attack. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke from the gathering of business leaders in Davos, Switzerland.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: “The population were already vulnerable because of so many months of severely restricted supplies. That is why the humanitarian special appeal for Gaza that we are announcing today is so timely and so important. With the help of this $613 million appeal, the United Nations and other aid agencies can jump into action to help the 1.4 million civilians in the Gaza Strip to recover."
In other news from Davos, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan walked out of a panel discussion Thursday after a heated exchange with Israeli President Shimon Peres. Erdogan had tried to respond to Peres’s defense of Israel’s attack on Gaza.
Israeli President Shimon Peres: “What is there to fight? So the ceasefire is, as far as Israel is concerned, it is not a problem for us. We have never started, we shall never start fire. And when they fired against us, we replied, but after a great restraint, and thousands of people were killed too. They weren’t killed in a concentrated manner. So what? Doesn’t matter."
Erdogan tried to respond but was cut off by debate moderator, Washington Post reporter David Ignatius. But he later angrily continued his response.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: "You killed people. I remember the children who died on the beaches, and I remember two former prime ministers in your country who said they felt very happy when they were able to enter Palestinian territories in tanks, and they felt very satisfied with themselves. I find it very sad to see that people applaud what you have said, because there have been so many people who have been killed, and I think that it is very wrong, and it’s not humanitarian to applaud any actions that have had that kind of result."
In Iraq, the State Department is searching for a replacement to the private military company Blackwater Worldwide. Iraq announced this week it won’t renew Blackwater’s license to guard US personnel and installations. The US says it will comply with the order and has already spoken to the companies Dyncorp International and Triple Canopy. Five Blackwater guards were charged last month for the September 2007 mass shootings of seventeen unarmed civilians in Baghdad’s Nisoor Square.
In France, more than a million workers took to the streets nationwide in a general strike against the French government’s response to the global financial crisis. The strike was the largest in western Europe to date since the crisis unfolded last September. Critics say French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s $33 billion recovery program has favored banks over workers.
Back in the United States, suicides amongst US troops have increased to a three-decade high. Pentagon officials say at least 128 soldiers took their own lives last year. The final tally could be higher, as more than a dozen other deaths are still under investigation. It’s the highest total since record keeping began in 1980.
In Minnesota, jury deliberations have begun in the case of a protester accused of making Molotov cocktails during the Republican National Convention. The case has attracted further scrutiny after it was revealed a key government witness is Brandon Darby, a longtime activist turned FBI informant. The accused protester, David Guy McKay, says he fell victim to entrapment. McKay says Darby came up with the idea for the firebombs and encouraged the activists to make them.
And here in New York, activists opposed to the US-backed Israeli assault on Gaza disrupted a gala event last night put on by the lobby group AIPAC. The demonstrators chained themselves together to block two entrances at the Marriott Hotel. Police forced them apart by burning off the chains with blowtorches. Ten people were arrested.