By a 61-to-37 vote, the Senate has approved an $819 billion economic stimulus plan. Just three Republicans supported the measure: Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine, and Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter. Talks have begun to resolve key differences between the Senate and House versions of the bill. One difference deals with nuclear power plants. The Senate bill includes $50 billion in taxpayer money for loan guarantees for construction of new nuclear reactors and so-called "clean coal" plants. The House bill does not include any such loan guarantees. An analysis by the Center for American Progress projects that the Senate bill will create nine to 12 percent fewer jobs than the House bill, because the Senate bill provides less in federal spending and more in tax breaks. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said it was essential for Congress to approve the stimulus plan.
Sen. Chuck Schumer: "We are hemorrhaging jobs. The middle class is losing dollars. The country could edge over into a recessionary spiral downward that actually turns into deflation, which could, God forbid, turn into a depression. And yet, while President Obama shows leadership, the other side is still adamantly sticking to policies that don’t work."
Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky joined the majority of Republicans in voting against the bill.
Sen. Mitch McConnell: "This is an enormous amount of money. The President was right to call for a stimulus, but this bill misses the mark. It’s full of waste. We have no assurance it will create jobs or revive the economy. The only thing we know for sure is that it increases our debt and locks in bigger and bigger interest payments every single year."
Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner held a news conference Tuesday where he was expected to outline the Obama administration’s plan to revive the nation’s moribund financial system. But Geithner’s presentation has been widely criticized for lacking key details on how the government plans to proceed. The Chicago Tribune reported Geithner offered up the functional equivalent of a plan without a plan. Geithner proposed spending as much as $2.5 trillion to aid banks, unfreeze consumer credit markets and stem the soaring foreclosure rate. Geithner said the funds would come from the Treasury, private investors and the Federal Reserve. Geithner essentially ruled out nationalizing any of the nation’s major banks but said the government would take $500 billion of bad assets off the books of American banks.
Tim Geithner: "Our plan will help restart the flow of credit. It will help clean up and strengthen our banks. And it will provide critical aid for homeowners and for small businesses. And as we do each of these things, we will impose new higher standards for transparency and accountability."
Geithner also called for extending a Federal Reserve program aimed at shoring up consumer lending to the troubled mortgage sector.
Tim Geithner: “As housing prices fall, demand for housing will increase, and conditions will ultimately find a new balance. And you’re seeing that happen in parts of the country today. But now we risk an intensifying spiral in which lenders foreclose, pushing house prices lower and reducing the value of household savings, making it harder for all families to refinance."
Lawmakers in both parties said they were surprised and displeased by the administration’s decision to wait another week or two before unveiling a program to help struggling homeowners. Investors also expressed concern about the lack of details in Geithner’s plan. The stock market plummeted as Geithner began laying out his plan. The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended up down nearly 400 points or 4.6 percent.
In other economic news, Wal-Mart and General Motors have announced new rounds of layoffs. Wal-Mart says it will cut up to 800 jobs at its headquarters in Arkansas. General Motors has announced plans to eliminate 10,000 more salaried jobs this year.
The leaders of Israel’s two main parties have both claimed victory in an early general election. With 99 percent of the votes counted, Tzipi Livni’s governing centrist Kadima Party was in first place with twenty-eight seats, while Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party was a close second with twenty-seven seats. Both need coalition partners to gather the sixty-one seats needed to form a government in the 120-seat Knesset. This puts the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party led by Avigdor Lieberman in a key position after coming in third with fifteen seats. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports Netanyahu has a better chance of forging a coalition because of gains by right-wing parties who are his natural allies. Saudi Professor Mohammad al-Qahtani said the election results will hurt chances of lasting peace in the region.
Mohammad al-Qahtani: “I think you’re going to see a government maybe tilted toward the right with no change, with no acceptance of the Arab initiative for peace, so it’s back to square zero. And it is a problem when you have, you know, a government that’s not pushing toward peace, no matter how lenient you are in giving more peace initiative or willing to compromise. The other party is very recalcitrant and is not willing to move forward."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tuesday that Tehran was ready for talks with the Obama administration. Ahmadinejad made the remark during a speech marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Iranian revolution.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "The new US administration has announced that they want to produce change and pursue the course of dialogue. It is quite clear that real change must be fundamental and not tactical. It is clear that the Iranian nation welcomes real change. The Iranian nation is ready to hold talks, but talks in a fair atmosphere with mutual respect."
Ahmadinejad’s comments came hours after President Obama said his administration was exploring ways to open a dialogue with Iran.
President Obama: “My expectation is, in the coming months, we will be looking for openings that can be created where we can start sitting across the table, face to face, diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in a new direction."
Special envoy Richard Holbrooke met with the heads of the Pakistani government Tuesday but reportedly did not question Pakistani officials about last week’s release of nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan. Khan helped Pakistan build its nuclear arsenal and later helped smuggle nuclear weapons blueprints to other countries, including Iran, North Korea and Libya. Khan had been under house arrest until last week, when the Pakistani High Court declared him to be a free citizen. The State Department says Khan remains a serious proliferation risk. Pakistan has never let foreign investigators question Khan.
In Afghanistan, at least nineteen people died after Taliban fighters, carrying assault rifles and wearing suicide vests, stormed the Afghan Justice Ministry and the Department of Prison Affairs in Kabul. Fifty-four people were wounded. The coordinated attacks struck in the heart of Kabul, near the presidential palace and the US embassy in the Afghan capital. The attack came on the eve of a scheduled visit to Afghanistan by President Obama’s special envoy Richard Holbrooke.
In Zimbabwe, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has been sworn in as prime minister as part of a power-sharing agreement with his longtime rival, President Robert Mugabe. Tsvangirai told reporters Tuesday he did not see himself as joining Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since it became a free country in 1980.
Morgan Tsvangirai: "Today marks another step in the long and difficult process to rebuild Zimbabwe and to restore its proud place in the family of nations. The road ahead is long, but we believe we must and can succeed."
Criticism is growing over the possible nomination of Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen to head the Health and Human Services Department. On Tuesday, the group MoveOn urged members to oppose Bredesen’s nomination. The group accused Bredesen of gutting Tennessee’s public health insurance program, causing more than 320,000 people to lose their health insurance. Bredesen has deep ties to the private health insurance industry. In 1980, Bredesen founded HealthAmerica Corp., which grew to become the country’s second-largest HMO before he sold it for $400 million.
In other health news, analysts with the Congressional Budget Office have projected the number of Americans without health insurance will grow from 45 million to about 54 million over the next ten years if there are no changes in federal policy.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is slowing down last-minute attempts by the Bush administration to expand offshore oil and gas drilling. The Bush administration had proposed opening vast waters off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to drilling and set a sixty-day comment period for the proposal. On Tuesday, Salazar said he would extend the public comment period by 180 days.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has ordered a review of the Pentagon policy banning media from taking pictures of flag-draped coffins of military dead. The military has said the policy is meant to protect the privacy of the families of the dead soldiers, but critics say barring photographers is a political maneuver meant to sanitize the war.
Millions of Americans may be unable to watch their favorite television stations after February 17 despite a vote in Congress to delay the transition from analog to digital broadcasts until June. More than a quarter of major US TV stations have asked the FCC to approve plans to shut down their analog broadcasts on February 17, sticking to the original date. An estimated 6.5 million households are unprepared for the "digital transition." Elderly, Latino and low-income households are believed to be most affected.
The Egyptian government has released an Egyptian-German student and blogger who had been arrested after taking part in a protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. Philip Rizk was nabbed by Egyptian security forces on Friday after he had completed a six-mile walk in protest of Egypt’s closure of its border with Gaza. Rizk writes the blog Tabula Gaza. He had just completed a short documentary about nonviolent protest against Israeli operations in the Gaza Strip. A second blogger named Diaeddin Gad remains in detention. Egyptian security officials arrested the twenty-two-year-old blogger after he criticized the Egyptian government.
And Guy Chichester has died at the age of seventy-three. He was one of the founding members of New Hampshire’s anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance.