Senate Democrats erupted into applause this morning, shortly after 7:15 a.m., following the passage of the Senate’s $871 billion healthcare bill. The final vote was 60 to 39. No Republican supported the legislation, which has been President Obama’s top domestic priority. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid spoke moments before the vote.
Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid: "We certainly don’t have, Mr. President, the luxury of waiting until America becomes the only developed nation on earth where you can die for lack of health insurance. We already bear that blemish. That’s why we’re bringing security and stability to millions who have health insurance and bringing health insurance to millions who have none."
Supporters of the Senate bill describe it as the biggest expansion of federal healthcare guarantees since the enactment of Medicare and Medicaid over four decades ago. But many progressives have criticized the Senate for removing language that would have created a government-run health insurance program to compete with private insurers. The Senate and House must now merge their two bills. We’ll have more on the Senate vote after headlines.
In Yemen, at least thirty suspected militants have been reportedly killed in another air strike on an alleged al-Qaeda hideout. Yemeni forces, backed by US intelligence, are said to have carried out the strike. The attack comes one week after President Obama ordered cruise missiles to be fired at another two alleged al-Qaeda sites in Yemen. The Washington Post reports the Pentagon has poured nearly $70 million in military aid to Yemen this year. The US military has also boosted its counterterrorism training for Yemeni forces and is providing more intelligence, which probably includes surveillance by unmanned drones.
In an interview on PBS NewsHour, President Obama said Wednesday that disappointment over the outcome of the Copenhagen climate change summit was justified. Obama made the comment one day after Sweden labeled the accord Obama helped broker a disaster for the environment.
President Obama: "I mean, I think that people are justified in being disappointed about the outcome in Copenhagen. What I said was essentially that rather than see a complete collapse in Copenhagen, in which nothing at all got done and would have been a huge backward step, at least we kind of held ground, and there wasn’t too much backsliding from where we were."
The New York Times reports investigators in Congress, at the Securities and Exchange Commission and at the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority have launched probes into Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms for deliberately selling risky structured securities to clients and then betting on the securities failing. The probes are looking at how Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank and other Wall Street firms profited off complex mortgage-based securities, known as synthetic collateralized debt obligations, or CDOs. Pension funds and insurance companies lost billions of dollars on such securities that they believed were solid investments. One focus of the inquiry is whether the firms creating the securities purposely helped to select especially risky mortgage-linked assets that would be most likely to crater, setting their clients up to lose billions of dollars if the housing market imploded. Finance expert Sylvain Raynes said, “The simultaneous selling of securities to customers and shorting them because they believed they were going to default is the most cynical use of credit information that I have ever seen.” Raynes compared it to buying fire insurance on someone else’s house and then committing arson.
In other business news, the Washington Post reports many top executives at the bailed-out insurance giant AIG have reneged on promises to pay back part of their large bonuses. Earlier this year, outrage erupted when AIG paid more than $165 million in bonuses to employees in the division that had precipitated the company’s downfall. After legal threats, AIG executives agreed to return about $45 million in bonuses by the end of the year. But so far a majority of that money remains unpaid. Only about $19 million has been given back. Meanwhile, AIG is scheduled to pay out an additional $198 million in bonuses in March.
In news from Africa, the UN Security Council has imposed sanctions on Eritrea following accusations of Eritrea supplying funds and arms to militants in Somalia. Eritrea becomes the first new country to be subjected to UN sanctions since they were imposed on Iran in 2006. Somalia’s UN ambassador Elmi Ahmed Duale praised the UN vote.
Elmi Ahmed Duale: "One, Eritrea has been giving refuge and safe haven to known terrorists, rebels, spoilers and violators of human rights whose purpose all along was to destabilize Somalia. These same groups have committed crimes against humanity and crimes against the Somali people. Eritrea — two, Eritrea has been providing, financing and facilitating the flow of arms and resources to the extremists and terrorist elements in Somalia."
Eritrea’s UN ambassador Araya Desta accused the United States of pushing the sanctions.
Araya Desta: "The Security Council has decided to impose sanctions on Eritrea on fabricated lies mainly concocted by the Ethiopian regime and the US state, the US administration. As I said before, Eritreans haven’t done anything. All these sanctions have no relevance. They were totally irrelevant with no concrete evidences."
The New York Times reports the Energy Department will soon announce the first of $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for building new nuclear reactors. The loans will be used to construct the nation’s first new nuclear reactors in three decades. Industry experts expect the first loan guarantee will go to the Southern Company to build two units at its Vogtle nuclear plant near Augusta, Georgia.
Here in New York City, environmental officials are demanding that the state of New York reverse its decision to allow natural gas drilling upstate in the Marcellus Shale watershed. The city is concerned that toxic chemicals used in the drilling process could leak into the city’s drinking water supply, causing unknown health risks. Steven Lawitts, the acting commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, said, “hydrofracking and horizontal drilling pose unacceptable threats to the unfiltered fresh water supply of nine million New Yorkers.”
In other energy news, the Justice Department has announced Chevron will pay $45 million to resolve claims that it vastly underpaid royalties on natural gas produced on federal and Native American lands between 1988 and 2008.
In news from Israeli, it was acknowledged Wednesday that Israeli authorities harvested organs from the dead bodies for transplant purposes in the 1990s. Organs from Palestinians, Israelis and foreign workers were stolen without permission from relatives of the deceased. Over the weekend, an Israeli TV station aired an interview with the former head of a state-run forensic lab who openly described harvesting corneas, heart valves, skin and bone.
An Israeli military court has indicted a prominent Palestinian activist who heads the Bil’in Popular Committee Against the Wall. Abdallah Abu Rahma was arrested two weeks ago. For years he has led nonviolent protests against the construction of the Israeli separation wall in the West Bank. Charges against Abu Rahma include arms possession. The Israeli court accused him of collecting and showcasing used tear gas canisters shot at demonstrators in Bil’in by the Israeli army. In response to the charges, his attorney Gaby Lasky said, “the army shoots at unarmed demonstrators, and when they try to show the world the violence used against them by collecting, presenting the remnants, they are persecuted and prosecuted. What’s next? Charging protesters money for the bullets shot at them?” Abdallah Abu Rahma is one of several nonviolent Palestinian activists arrested in recent weeks.
The government of Ecuador has revoked the license of an indigenous radio station run by the Shuar people in the Amazon. Rafael Correa’s government claims Radio Arutam incited violence in October when indigenous groups protested against legislation they said would allow mining on their land without their consent.
And the influential sports writer Lester Rodney has died at the age of ninety-eight. From 1936 to 1958, he worked as sports editor of the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the US Communist Party. Rodney campaigned to allow African Americans to play Major League Baseball. The sportswriter Dave Zirin said of Rodney, "He crusaded against baseball’s color line when almost every other journalist pretended it didn’t exist."