House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to unveil a healthcare bill today that includes a government insurance option and an expansion of Medicaid. But Pelosi has reportedly dropped an effort to establish reimbursement rates to providers based on Medicare rates. Under Pelosi’s bill, rates would be negotiated between providers and federal health officials, similar to the private insurance system.
Healthcare activists around the country, meanwhile, staged a national day of sit-ins at insurance companies Wednesday to demand public universal healthcare. The groups Mobilization for Health Care for All and Healthcare-NOW! say at least thirty-seven people were arrested nationwide. More than 115 people have been arrested since the first sit-ins were held last month. Here in New York, nine people were arrested at the offices of WellPoint insurance.
Protester: "I’m here because, at the moment, the private insurance companies are controlling the outcome of healthcare reform in this country by contributing millions of dollars in lobbying efforts to our elected officials. The private insurance companies are the real death panels. We want a system that covers all Americans and cuts costs, and that system is Medicare for all."
Other protest sites included New Jersey, where seven people were arrested after blocking the Newark offices of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield. In Florida, two people were arrested outside the Sunrise offices of CIGNA. Seven were arrested outside CIGNA’s offices in Glendale, California. In Seattle, eight people were arrested at the offices of Regence BlueShield. And in San Francisco, more than thirty people took part in a blockade of the offices of UnitedHealth and Blue Shield of California. No arrests were made. More sit-ins are scheduled to continue today.
President Obama has signed into law the $680 billion National Defense Authorization Act, the largest military spending bill of its kind. The bill includes funding for the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan and modifies the military commissions system at Guantanamo Bay. The changes include new restrictions on hearsay and coerced testimony, although without barring them completely. The law also increases prisoners’ access to evidence and witnesses. But civil liberties advocates say it still falls far short of adhering to international law and the Geneva Conventions. Children could still be tried as war criminals, and terror suspects — now known as "unprivileged enemy belligerents" — could be tried for offenses not traditionally considered "war crimes." Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union said, "Closing the [Guantanamo Bay] prison will have little meaning if the administration leaves in place the policies that the prison has come to represent." At the signing ceremony, Obama said the measure had trimmed excessive military spending.
President Obama: "I have always rejected the notion that we have to waste billions of dollars of taxpayer money to keep this nation secure. In fact, I think that wasting these dollars makes us less secure. And that’s why we have passed a defense bill that eliminates some of the waste and inefficiency in our defense process — reforms that will better protect our nation, better protect our troops, and save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars."
Despite Obama’s praise, the bill included several military spending projects he had opposed, including $560 million for a new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter engine the Pentagon had rejected. Overall, the bill increases spending $24 billion from the last fiscal year. The bill also includes a law expanding the definition of hate crimes to cover those targeted because of their sexual orientation, granting new protections to lesbian, gay and transgender people under federal law. The measure was named after Matthew Shepard, the gay Wyoming university student who was brutally beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die in 1998.
Democratic lawmakers have opened a probe into whether the CIA has illegally misled Congress on intelligence activities. Democratic Congress members Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and Anna Eshoo of California say the CIA has misled Congress at least five times since 2001 on cases including the torture of prisoners, the shooting down of an airplane over Peru, and the Bush administration’s secret assassination program. The CIA may have violated the National Security Act of 1947, which says Congress must be kept "fully and currently informed" about all intelligence operations.
In Pakistan, the death toll from Wednesday’s bombing in the northwestern city of Peshawar has risen to at least 105. The attack comes amidst a visit to Pakistan by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. New details have emerged, meanwhile, on the US role in the Pakistani offensive against militants in South Waziristan. The New York Times reports the Obama administration has quietly rushed hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons and equipment to the Pakistani military in recent months. President Obama personally intervened to speed the delivery of ten military helicopters, and top Pentagon officials have shipped spare parts for helicopter gunships. The number of US military officials training and advising the Pakistani army has also doubled to as many as 150. The news follows last week’s disclosure the Pakistani military is using intelligence and surveillance video gathered from US Predator drones.
The UN General Assembly has voted to call for an end to the US embargo on Cuba for the eighteenth consecutive year. The non-binding measure drew support from 187 countries, with the US joined only by Israel and Palau in opposition. Addressing the assembly before the vote, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parilla criticized the Obama administration for extending the embargo.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parilla: "Since the election of President Obama, there has not been any change in the implementation of the economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba. The blockade remains intact. It continues to be an absurd policy that causes scarcities and suffering. It is a mass, flagrant and systematic violation of human rights. The international community cannot nor should not accept that those who govern in Washington feel they have the authority to implement coercive economic measures and extraterritorial laws against sovereign states."
After Parilla spoke, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, defended the Obama administration’s support for continuing the embargo.
US Ambassador Susan Rice: "It is erroneous to charge that US sanctions are the cause of deprivation among the Cuban people. The US maintains no restriction on humanitarian aid to Cuba. In fact, the US is a major source of humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people and the largest provider of food to Cuba…Mr. President, because it does not reflect current realities, my delegation will vote against this resolution. At the same time, the United States will continue to work to expand opportunities for the people of Cuba to empower themselves through access to information and resources."
Zimbabwe has blocked a mission by a top United Nations human rights official. Manfred Nowak, the UN special rapporteur on torture, had been invited by Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, the chief rival to President Robert Mugabe. But Nowak was detained after landing in Harare Wednesday and deported earlier today.
In Detroit, the leader of a militant Islamist group has been fatally shot in a federal raid. Luqman Ameen Abdullah headed a Sunni Muslim group called the Ummah, which has advocated a separate Muslim nation within the United States. Abdullah was killed Wednesday in one of three raids on his group around Detroit. He and ten others had recently been indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit federal crimes but never faced terrorism charges. The FBI says Abdullah was shot dead after he refused to surrender and opened fire on federal agents. Six other suspects were also arrested in the raids.
In other news from Washington, Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont took to the Senate floor Wednesday to denounce Republicans for blocking a measure to expand unemployment benefits. Sanders has co-sponsored a proposal that would provide an additional fourteen weeks of unemployment benefits in all fifty states. Sanders said a failure to approve the measure would abandon jobless Americans.
Sen. Bernie Sanders: "If we do not pass this legislation by the end of this year, nearly two million Americans will see their unemployment benefits expire, including some 2,000 people in the small state of Vermont. Mr. President, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and at a time when long-term unemployment is extremely high, we cannot turn our backs on jobless Americans by letting their unemployment insurance expire. That would just be — just be driving people into the abyss."
And the White House is denying a report it’s rewarded top Democratic donors with special White House visits since President Obama’s inauguration. The Washington Times reported Wednesday major fundraisers were promised meetings with top officials in return for large donations ahead of 2010 midterm elections. The perks reportedly given donors included visiting the Oval Office, use of the White House bowling alley and movie screenings in the presidential mansion. On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs denied fundraisers have been given special treatment and said the Obama administration would soon release a full list of visitors to the White House.