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The Senate is set to vote today on its version of the economic stimulus package. The final price tag is said to be $838 billion. Senate backing would lead to talks with the House, which passed a larger bill last week. On Monday, President Obama continued to press for congressional approval. Speaking at his first presidential news conference, Obama again warned of “catastrophe” absent the bill’s passage.
President Obama: "Now, my administration inherited a deficit of over $1 trillion, but because we also inherited the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression, doing little or nothing at all will result in even greater deficits, even greater job loss, even greater loss of income, and even greater loss of confidence. Those are deficits that could turn a crisis into a catastrophe, and I refuse to let that happen. As long as I hold this office, I will do whatever it takes to put this economy back on track and put this country back to work."
Just three Republicans joined Democratic senators in moving to cut off debate for today’s final vote. Earlier in the day, President Obama traveled to Indiana, where he spoke at a campaign-style town hall in Elkhart.
President Obama: "The situation we face could not be more serious. We have inherited an economic crisis as deep and as dire as any since the Great Depression. Economists from across the spectrum have warned that if we don’t act immediately, millions of more jobs will be lost, the national unemployment rates will approach double digits, not just here in Elkhart, all across the country."
Bloomberg News estimates the economic stimulus package would raise the government tab in addressing the financial crisis to $9.7 trillion. In addition to the Wall Street bailout and the current stimulus plan, the US government is believed to have lent or spent more than $8 trillion through the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The $9.7 trillion figure would nearly be enough to pay off every mortgage in the nation.
The Obama administration is set to announce further bailout measures later today. These include a program for a public-private partnership in refinancing purchases of toxic bank securities as well as freeing up more money for the auto and banking industry. The Washington Post reports the costs of the new provisions could top $1.5 trillion. More on the economy after headlines.
Back at the White House, President Obama took several other questions on domestic and foreign policy at his inaugural news conference. Obama was asked about Senator Patrick Leahy’s proposal for a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate Bush administration crimes.
President Obama: "My view is also that nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards. I want to pull everybody together, including, by the way, the — all the members of the intelligence community who have done things the right way and have been working hard to protect America and I think sometimes are painted with a broad brush without adequate information. So I will take a look at Senator Leahy’s proposal, but my general orientation is to say let’s get it right moving forward."
The veteran correspondent Helen Thomas was also able to ask her first question of Obama’s presidency. In a clear reference to Israel, Thomas pressed Obama on nuclear weapons in the Middle East. Obama tried to ignore that part of her question.
President Obama: “All right. Helen? This is my inaugural moment here. I’m really excited."
Helen Thomas: "Mr. President, do you think that Pakistan and — are maintaining the safe havens in Afghanistan for these so-called terrorists? And also, do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?”
President Obama: “Well, I think that Pakistan — there is no doubt that in the FATA region of Pakistan, in the mountainous regions along the border of Afghanistan, that there are safe havens where terrorists are operating. And one of the goals of Ambassador Holbrooke, as he is traveling throughout the region, is to deliver a message to Pakistan that they are endangered as much as we are by the continuation of those operations and that we’ve got to work in a regional fashion to root out those safe havens…With respect to nuclear weapons, you know, I don’t want to speculate. What I know is this: that if we see a nuclear arms race in a region as volatile as the Middle East, everybody will be in danger. And one of my goals is to prevent nuclear proliferation generally. I think that it’s important for the United States, in concert with Russia, to lead the way on this.”
Thomas is the most senior member of the White House press corps. She has now questioned ten presidents, dating back to John F. Kennedy.
The Obama administration has decided to continue a Bush administration policy of invoking "state secrets" to dismiss a lawsuit accusing a Boeing subsidiary of helping the CIA secretly transport prisoners to torture chambers overseas. On Monday, a San Francisco appeals court heard arguments on the American Civil Liberties Union’s attempt to reinstate the case against Jeppesen International Trip Planning on behalf of five former prisoners. The lawsuit accused Jeppesen of arranging at least seventy flights since 2001 as part of the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program. The Bush administration successfully won the case’s dismissal on the grounds it would risk exposing "state secrets." On Monday, Obama administration lawyers told judges the government’s stance is unchanged. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said, "[The] Justice Department stood up in court today and said that it would continue the Bush policy of invoking state secrets to hide the reprehensible history of torture, rendition and the most grievous human rights violations committed by the American government. This is not change. This is definitely more of the same."
In Iraq, four US troops and an interpreter have been killed in a suicide bombing in Mosul. It was the deadliest attack on US troops in Iraq since May.
In Afghanistan, a new poll shows growing opposition to the US occupation. According to ABC News, a quarter of Afghans now support attacks on US troops, double the number from two years ago. 32 percent said US troops are performing well, down from 68 percent in 2005. One in five Afghans said US-led forces have killed civilians in their area in the past year.
In Israel, a tight leadership race is being decided today in national elections. Polls show a close match between Kadima, headed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and the front-running Likud, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Livni could emerge victorious if she gains enough votes to form a coalition with Labor, headed by Defense Minister Ehud Barak. All three candidates support attacking and blockading Gaza and the continued takeover of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank. In Gaza, Hamas spokesperson Ayman Taha dismissed the outcome of the elections.
Ayman Taha: "We see them all as war criminals, and we do not tie our policies to the Israeli elections. We draw our policies in accordance with our national interests. Therefore, the Israeli election does not concern us at all. They were all involved in shedding our blood."
Meanwhile, in Egypt, a Egyptian-German student and peace activist has been arrested after taking part in a protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. Friends and relatives say they haven’t heard from Philip Rizk since Egyptian security forces nabbed him Friday night. He had just completed a six-mile walk in protest of Egypt’s closure of its border with Gaza. Egyptian forces also reportedly tried to arrest Rizk’s parents but were deterred by German embassy officials.
And back in the United States, a federal court has ordered the California prison system to reduce overcrowding within the next three years. A three-judge panel says California should reduce its prison population by as many as 55,000 through measures including shortening sentences and diverting nonviolent prisoners. California Attorney General Jerry Brown says he plans to appeal.