A bipartisan group of senators is seeking to cut at least $80 billion from President Obama’s $900 billion economic stimulus plan. Most of the cuts would come to education spending, including $40 billion for state programs. President Obama, meanwhile, has intensified his push for Senate approval. Speaking before Energy Department employees, Obama warned of “catastrophe” if the stimulus bill isn’t passed.
President Obama: “If we do not move swiftly to sign the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law, an economy that is already in crisis will be faced with catastrophe. This is not my assessment. This is not Nancy Pelosi’s assessment. This is the assessment of the best economists in the country."
Obama, meanwhile, has signed into law an expansion of government health insurance for low-income children, following congressional approval last month. The $33 billion expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program will be funded in part by a tax increase on cigarette packs. Former President George W. Bush twice vetoed similar measures.
A congressional investigation has found the Bush administration overpaid tens of billions of dollars in its purchase of bank stocks and assets under the Wall Street bailout. The Congressional Oversight Panel says the government received assets with a market value worth at least $78 billion less than what it invested. That translates to a roughly thirty-cent loss for every dollar the government spent.
The number of American workers filing for new unemployment benefits has hit a twenty-six-year high. Claims for state unemployment insurance rose by 35,000 last week, to 626,000.
The key whistleblower in the Bernie Madoff fraud case has criticized government regulators for ignoring repeated warnings. Harry Markopolos told lawmakers he began warning Securities and Exchange Commission officials about Madoff in 2000. Markopolos said the SEC didn’t take action in large part because of incompetence and deference to financial interests. He said, “I gift-wrapped and delivered the largest Ponzi scheme to them.” Markopolos also criticized the Wall Street Journal for failing to pick up the story. He said Wall Street Journal editors apparently refused to let a senior reporter follow the story after Markopolos had tipped him off.
The last military tribunal at Guantanamo Bay has been dropped in compliance with President Obama’s order to close the prison. The prosecution of USS Cole bombing suspect Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was the last active case at Guantanamo. All charges have been dropped, but Nashiri will remain jailed. The announcement came on the eve of a White House meeting today between Obama and families and victims of the Cole bombing and 9/11 attacks.
President Obama’s nominee to head the CIA, Leon Panetta, appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday as part of his confirmation hearings. Panetta said he believes waterboarding amounts to torture but discouraged prosecutions against those who carried it out.
Leon Panetta: "I’ve expressed the opinion that I believe that waterboarding is torture and that it’s wrong. More importantly, the President has expressed the same opinion. Having said that, I also believe, as the President has indicated, that those individuals who operated pursuant to a legal opinion that indicated that that was proper and legal ought not to be prosecuted or investigated."
Panetta is expected to win an easy confirmation despite Republican opposition.
Meanwhile, a Senate panel has delayed a vote on President Obama’s Labor Secretary nominee, Democatic Congress member Hilda Solis of California. The move followed the disclosure Solis’s husband paid a $6,000 penalty to settle tax liens as much as sixteen years old. The liens came on an auto-repair business owned solely by the husband. Solis’s confirmation vote had already been delayed amidst Republican opposition to her support for labor groups.
Newly released figures show 73 percent of arrests made under a federal program to target fugitive immigrants nabbed people who didn’t have criminal records. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s National Fugitive Operations Program was billed as an effort to target immigrants posing threats to national safety. But according to the Migration Policy Institute, just 18 percent of the nearly 90,000 arrested had criminal records. 34 percent had no outstanding deportation orders but were arrested anyway.
Meanwhile, in Arizona, a county sheriff is coming under criticism for parading a group of chained undocumented prisoners through the streets of Phoenix. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio rounded up some 200 prisoners before their transfer to the infamous Tent City jail. Arpaio is known for targeting immigrants and arresting them if they can’t prove documented residency. Joanne Lin of the American Civil Liberties Union called the latest action an attempt to humiliate the prisoners.
Joanne Lin: “Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona actually closed down a public road in order to create this spectacle of this parade of 200 immigrants in a chain gang. Clearly, this was designed to be a public spectacle, designed to humiliate all these 200 people and actually immigrant communities generally. Were he really interested in actually transferring them, he could have put them on a bus or on a van."
Last year, a group of Latino activists in Arizona filed a lawsuit accusing Arpaio of racial profiling.
In Los Angeles, the city council has agreed to pay a nearly $13 million settlement to immigration activists and bystanders injured during the LAPD’s crackdown on a May Day rally in MacArthur Park in 2007. Police with riot guns fired hundreds of rubber bullets, shot tear gas and clubbed protesters and journalists during the crackdown.
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, the Israeli government has deported ten passengers aboard a Lebanese ship trying to deliver aid supplies to the Gaza Strip. The ship’s owner, Mohammed Yousseff, said Israeli forces opened fire on the passengers and assaulted them after coming aboard.
Mohammed Yousseff: “We contacted the ship, and we’ve been told by the captain what happened, that it was stopped by Israelis, and it was fired upon, and soldiers boarded the ship and attacked the captain, passengers and crew. I appeal to the United Nations and the European countries to protect the people on board the ship and the ship and also to send all the aid supplies on the ship to the people in Gaza. And we are calling on the people to help the Palestinians get rid of this blockade."
Another eighteen passengers are believed to still remain in Israeli custody. The Brotherhood ship was carrying sixty tons of supplies, including medical aid, food and books.
As Israel blocks aid ships from reaching Gaza, dock workers in South Africa are refusing to unload Israeli goods at their ports. The South African Transport and Allied Workers Union says it will no longer unload Israeli ships in solidarity with Palestinians. Last year, South African dock workers refused to unload a Zimbabwe weapons shipment in protest of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.
At the State Department Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated the Obama administration commitment to follow the Bush administration policy of boycotting Hamas.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “I would only add that our conditions respecting Hamas are very clear. We will not, in any way, negotiate with or recognize Hamas until they renounce violence, recognize Israel and agree to abide by, as the Foreign Minister said, the prior agreements entered into by the PLO and the Palestinian Authority."
The US position has been criticized in part because it refuses to impose the same conditions on Israel. Israel refuses to renounce violence, recognize a Palestinian state and abide by agreements, including a pledge to freeze settlement expansion in the occupied West Bank.
Clinton also addressed a growing controversy in Kyrgyzstan, where the US stands to lose a key air base critical to the Afghan occupation. The Kyrgyz government has announced it’s closing the Manas Air Base because of public opposition and a US refusal to pay a higher fee.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “It’s regrettable that this is under consideration by the government of Kyrgyzstan, and we hope to have further discussions with them, but we will proceed in a very effective manner, no matter what the outcome of the Kyrgyzstan government’s deliberations might be."
Pentagon officials say the US is now considering resuming military cooperation with Uzbekistan because of the potential air base loss.
And in military news, the Army says it’s investigating what it calls an unprecedented number of suicides last month. Twenty-four Army deaths in January are being probed as suspected suicides. The toll would exceed the number of combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan over the same period.