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President Obama is preparing to send a more than $3 trillion budget plan to Congress today. The budget will seek further tax increases on wealthy Americans to fund a ten-year, $634 billion proposal to expand healthcare for the uninsured. The plan would reduce the value of itemized tax deductions for Americans in the top tax bracket. The total amounts to half the estimated cost of bringing healthcare to every American. The other half would come through projected savings through cuts to Medicare programs. Obama’s budget will also include a plan to collect billions of dollars in revenue from firms paying for emitting greenhouse gases.
Other highlights of Obama’s budget include a sharp reduction in funding for the nuclear waste dump Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The new budget removes virtually all of Yucca’s funding with the exception of license fees submitted last year. The Energy Department says the Yucca program will be "scaled back while the administration devises a new strategy toward nuclear-waste disposal."
On Wednesday, Obama held a White House meeting with lawmakers to call for greater regulation over the financial industry.
President Obama: "The choice we face is not between some oppressive government-run economy or a chaotic and unforgiving capitalism. Rather, strong financial markets require clear rules of the road, not to hinder financial institutions, but to protect consumers and investors and ultimately to keep those financial institutions strong."
Obama meanwhile also announced his new nominee for Commerce Secretary, former Washington Governor Gary Locke.
President Obama: "Gary will be a trusted voice in my cabinet, a tireless advocate for our economic competitiveness, and an influential ambassador for American industry who will help us do everything we can, especially now, to promote our industry around the world."
Locke is Obama’s third Commerce pick, following former nominees New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson and Senator Judd Gregg. He served two terms as Washington state governor starting in 1997, when he became the nation’s first Chinese American governor.
Gary Locke: "We will harness the resources and the talent of the Department of Commerce to help you fulfill your commitment to the American people to build a stronger and more prosperous nation. I embrace this opportunity to serve you and the American people."
The Wall Street Journal is reporting the US government is nearing a deal to increase its stake in the troubled bank Citigroup to as much as 40 percent. The US has already poured $45 billion into Citigroup since last year. The deal is expected to be announced later today.
CIA director Leon Panetta has revealed the global financial crisis is now being tracked in the daily intelligence briefing prepared for President Obama. In his first news conference, Panetta said Obama is being briefed on how the financial crisis is unfolding and its effect on the stability of countries worldwide. Earlier this month, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair said economic troubles have surpassed terrorism as the nation’s top security threat. Panetta also says Latin American intelligence officials have warned the US of a crisis spreading through the hemisphere. The officials highlighted developments in Argentina, Ecuador and Venezuela, Panetta said.
Meanwhile, Panetta reiterated the Obama administration’s commitment to continue several Bush administration policies in the so-called war on terror. Panetta told reporters the US will continue controversial drone attacks in Pakistan that have killed hundreds of civilians. He also said the US will continue to practice "rendition" — the kidnapping and sending of foreign suspects to other countries. And he said that while interrogators will have to abide by the Army Field Manual, President Obama can still approve harsher techniques using wartime powers.
President Obama has nominated an arms control scholar to serve as the new chief weapons buyer at the Pentagon. Harvard professor Ashton Carter would oversee hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons spending. Carter has no professional ties to US weapons manufacturers. He is in fact known for publicly criticizing the Pentagon for unnecessary procurements.
In Bangladesh, clashes have erupted in the streets of Dhaka in a mutiny by rebel armed forces. At least fifty people have died since the mutiny began on Wednesday. The dispute appears to center around demands for higher wages for Bangladeshi border guards.
In Egypt, members of the leading Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah have begun reconciliation talks. The two sides are discussing forming a Palestinian unity government and the release of hundreds of prisoners held by both sides. The US-backed Fatah controls the West Bank, while Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. The sides were due to meet earlier this year, but the talks were preempted by the Israeli attack on Gaza.
Meanwhile, Israeli warplanes have launched new attacks on smuggling tunnels near Gaza’s Egypt border. A resident of Rafah said her family narrowly escaped injury.
Resident: "Planes bombed, and rockets fell near the house. My husband and the children were in the car just five minutes before the strike. They would have been attacked if they had stayed in it."
Meanwhile, the Israeli government is facing new international criticism over its latest refusal to allow aid into the Gaza Strip. The aid group Mercy Corps says Israel is blocking a ninety-ton shipment of macaroni into Gaza. Much of Gaza’s 1.4 million population relies on humanitarian aid. The US is expected to pledge around $900 million for Gaza at a donors’ conference beginning on Monday. All of the money would go to non-governmental organizations.
Another attorney for Guantanamo Bay prisoners is claiming conditions have worsened sharply since President Obama took office. Ahmed Ghappour says Guantanamo guards are acting even more aggressively before Obama’s year-long deadline to shut the prison down. Ghappour said he’s heard recent accounts of beatings, the dislocation of limbs, spraying of pepper spray into closed cells, applying pepper spray to toilet paper and over-force-feeding hunger-striking prisoners. Other attorneys, including military lawyer Yvonne Bradley, have made similar claims since Obama ordered Guantanamo’s closure.
The video collective I-Witness Video has taken initial steps to file a lawsuit for police harassment during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul last year. The video makers had traveled to the Twin Cities to document police misconduct during the RNC. Instead, they were forced to turn the cameras on themselves, after police raided a home and an office where I-Witness Video members were staying. The Washington, D.C.-based Partnership for Civil Justice Fund has filed a notice of claim on behalf of I-Witness Video against the municipalities of St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Ramsey County.
And President Obama honored the musician Stevie Wonder last night at a White House ceremony. Obama presented Wonder with the nation’s highest honor for popular music, the Library of Congress Gershwin Award for Lifetime Achievement.
President Obama: "Just like Michelle, it was Stevie’s albums that I found, and his songs became the soundtrack of my youth. And through them, I found peace and inspiration, especially in difficult times. And I think it’s fair to say that had I not been a Stevie Wonder fan, Michelle might not have dated me. We might not have married. So the fact that we agreed on Stevie was part of the essence of our courtship. And I’m not alone. Millions of people around the world have found similar comfort and joy in Stevie’s music and his unique capacity to find hope in struggle and humanity in our common hardships."
Wonder went on to perform several songs for President Obama and assembled guests. The ceremony was a long way from one of Wonder’s most politically charged songs. His 1974 number one hit "You Haven’t Done Nothing" is known as a pointed criticism of then-President Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War and Watergate.