Senate Begins Debate on Economic Stimulus Package

The Senate has begun debate on President Obama’s massive economic stimulus package. Top Democrats are now proposing to increase the amount set aside for highway and mass transit, while Republicans are trying to strip parts of the nearly $900 billion bill. President Obama urged lawmakers to quickly approve the stimulus package.

President Obama: "The recovery package that we are moving forward is designed to provide states relief; to make sure that people who are laid off from their jobs are still able to get unemployment insurance, are still able to get healthcare; and that we are putting in place the infrastructure — rebuilding roads, bridges, waterways, other projects at the state levels — that allow us to put people back to work. And we want to create or save three million jobs, and we want to put the investments in place that are going to ensure long-term economic growth."

The Senate measure currently includes $325 billion in tax breaks and $560 billion in direct spending to spur the economy. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the bill needs to be reformed.

Sen. Mitch McConnell: "We’re not trying to prevent a package from passing. We’re trying to reform it, reformulate it, put it in a different place. The package that most of my members would support would be dramatically different from what passed the House and, frankly, dramatically different from what we currently see out of the Finance Committee and the Appropriations Committee. And I’ve indicated where we think it ought to go: fix housing first, tax relief for middle- and low-income taxpayers that put money back in their pockets immediately."

EU Pressures US to Drop “Buy American” Clause

The European Union and Canada is pressuring the Obama administration to reconsider the "Buy American" clause in the economic recovery package. The clause seeks to ensure that only US iron, steel and manufactured goods are used in projects funded by the bill. The EU says it plans to launch a complaint with the World Trade Organization if the clause remains.

Senate Stimulus Bill Includes $50 Billion for New Nuclear Reactors

Anti-nuclear activists are warning that the Senate version of the economic stimulus package contains $50 billion in loan guarantees that could be used to build new nuclear reactors and liquid coal plants. On Monday, twenty environmental and watchdog groups sent letters to the Senate urging the $50 billion loan provision be removed from the bill. In 2007, then Republican Senator Pete Domenici inserted a similar $50 billion loan provision into that year’s energy bill. But the provision was defeated after a grassroots campaign.

Macy’s Eliminates 7,000 Jobs

In other economic news, the department store Macy’s has announced plans to eliminate 7,000 jobs. Meanwhile, Morgan Stanley said Monday it would cut an additional 1,500 to 1,800 jobs.

Iraq Auditor Warns of Waste in Afghanistan

A new report by the Special Inspector General for Iraq says reconstruction efforts were grossly overburdened by wasteful spending. Stuart Bowen said the US has spent nearly $51 billion rebuilding Iraq and its army — more than twenty times original estimates. Bowen said the effort in Afghanistan is headed down the same path. $30 billion has already been spent rebuilding Afghanistan.

Eric Holder Confirmed as Attorney General

On Capitol Hill, the Senate has confirmed Eric Holder to be attorney general by a 75-to-21 vote. Holder becomes the nation’s first African American attorney general.

Ex-Chamber of Commerce Lobbyist Considered for Top Justice Post

President Obama is reportedly considering nominating Mark Gitenstein to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, the department’s main policymaking unit. Public Citizen has criticized the possible nomination. The group accuses Gitenstein of having a long record of championing laws to shield corporations from accountability at the expense of ordinary Americans. Gitenstein is a former registered lobbyist for the US Chamber of Commerce. Since the mid-1990s, he has lobbied for a law that made it more difficult to hold businesses and their auditing firms liable for false earnings predictions.

Daschle Apologizes for Failing to Pay Taxes

Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Tom Daschle has apologized to Senate leaders for failing to pay $128,000 in taxes. In a letter, the former Senate Majority Leader wrote, “I am deeply embarrassed and disappointed by the errors that required me to amend my tax returns. I apologize for the errors.” Daschle is scheduled to meet with the Senate Finance Committee today.

Qaddafi Elected as Head of African Union

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has been elected as head of the fifty-three-member African Union. Qaddafi has vowed to pursue his vision of a United States of Africa, where African nations would join together to become a unified state that could play a powerful role in global affairs. Qaddafi has often proposed establishing a single currency, army and passport for the entire continent.

Ban Ki-moon Addresses Crisis in Sudan and Somalia

In a speech before African leaders on Monday, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Sudan’s government and rebels to halt fighting in the Darfur town of Muhajiriya.

Ban Ki-moon: "I urge maximum restraint on President Bashir and have urged the JEM rebels to withdraw from the city to protect innocent civilians. UN peacekeeping forces in the city are there to protect the 15,000 IDPs, internally displaced persons, as per our mandate. We will continue to do our duty there despite calls for the UN withdrawal by the Sudanese government."

Addressing the situation in Somalia, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the UN Security Council will soon decide whether to send troops to the East African nation.

Ban Ki-moon: "Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed’s election gives us hope that the political process can move forward. We are moving quickly to give major assistance to the Africa Union’s AMISOM forces, as well as the new Somali security forces. The Security Council will decide in a few months if we should introduce a full UN peacekeeping operation in Somalia."

Ehud Barak Proposes Linking Gaza to West Bank with 30-Mile Tunnel

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak proposed on Monday linking the Gaza Strip with the occupied West Bank by digging a thirty-mile tunnel through Israeli territory. In a campaign speech, Barak said he would press for a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians if he is chosen as prime minister. When asked how Gaza, a coastal enclave home to 1.5 million Palestinians, separated from the West Bank by Israeli territory, could be made a part of a Palestinian state, Barak replied that the regions could have an underground link. He suggested one of the shortest routes would be some thirty miles long, stretching from the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun to Dura, near the West Bank city of Hebron.

Israel Accused of Mistreating Palestinian Prisoners

Human rights groups are accusing Israel of mistreating Palestinian prisoners during the twenty-two-day attack on Gaza.

Bana Shoughry-Badarne, lawyer of the Public Committee Against Torture: "We demand an in-depth, impartial, independent and comprehensive investigation to the conditions in which people from Gaza were held, were detained, inhumanely and in a way — the degrading way and humiliating way. We demand this investigation to be held immediately, and we want to hear the result."

Israel Imposes Sanctions on Al Jazeera

The Israeli government says it will impose sanctions on Israel-based employees of the Al Jazeera television network in response to closure last month of the Israeli trade office in Qatar, which hosts and funds the network. Qatar closed the office in opposition to Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip. Haaretz reports Israel will not renew the visas of Al Jazeera’s non-Israeli employees or grant visas to new employees. Station representatives will not be allowed into briefings or press conferences. The Israeli government has also instructed Knesset members and ministers not to grant interviews or otherwise cooperate with the station. Al Jazeera was the only television network with reporters inside Gaza during Israel’s twenty-two-day assault.

Brooklyn Man Jailed for Distributing Lebanese TV Channel

In other media news, a Pakistani American who owns a satellite TV company in Brooklyn has pleaded guilty to providing material aid to a terrorist organization. Javed Iqbal was accused of providing the aid by letting customers receive broadcasts from a Lebanese TV station tied to Hezbollah. Prosecutors said Iqbal used satellite dishes on his Staten Island home to distribute television broadcasts of Al Manar. Iqbal faces up to six-and-a-half years in prison. He has lived in the United States for twenty years and is the father of five children

Protester Throws Shoe at Chinese Premier

A protester threw a shoe at Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and called him a dictator as he delivered a speech on the global economy at Cambridge University in England. The shoe missed Wen and landed on the stage about three feet away from him. The protester shouted, "How can the university prostitute itself with this dictator? How can you listen to the lies he is telling? Stand up and protest." The protest followed the hurling of shoes by an Iraqi journalist at US President George W. Bush on his farewell visit to Iraq in December.

Iceland’s New PM Becomes First Lesbian to Head a Nation

Iceland has a new prime minister a week after the Icelandic government collapsed following protests over the nation’s devastated economy. Johanna Sigurdardottir took power on Sunday. She is believed to be the first lesbian to ever head a nation.

US Court Dismisses Pacific Nuclear Test Lawsuits

A panel of US appeal judges have ruled the US government does not have to pay a $1 billion compensation settlement to residents of Bikini and Enewetak, two Pacific islands where the US carried out sixty-seven nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958. The islands became uninhabitable after the weapons tests, forcing the residents of Bikini and Enewetak away from their homes.

Earth First Protesters Jailed in Florida

Two Florida environmental activists have been sentenced to jail for protesting the construction of a new natural gas-fired power plant in West Palm Beach County. The West County Energy Center is the largest proposed fossil fuel power plant in the country. It will be located 1,000 feet from the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge. Both activists are members of Everglades Earth First! They were given thirty- and sixty-day sentences.


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