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Senate Nears Stimulus Vote After Cutting Education Spending

The Senate is expected to vote to end debate today on a compromise version that will cut more than $100 billion from President Obama’s economic stimulus plan. The cuts include $35 billion for education, $5 billion for jobless workers’ healthcare and $8 billion to refurbish federal buildings. A final Senate vote tomorrow would lead to negotiations with the House, which passed a larger version of the package last week.

Nearly 600,000 Jobs Lost in January

The vote follows Friday’s news that nearly 600,000 jobs were lost last month, bringing the unemployment rate to 7.6 percent — its highest in sixteen years. On Sunday, White House economic adviser Larry Summers urged congressional action on the stimulus bill.

White House economic adviser Larry Summers: “The economy lost 600,000 jobs just in January, lost three million jobs last year. We’ve got to give this economy some help. The Senate bill, the House bill — the overlap is 90-plus percent. We’ve got to work through the differences, find the best bill we possibly can and get it in place as quickly as possible to contain what is a very damaging and potentially deflationary spiral."

President Obama is expected to fly to Indiana today to tout the stimulus plan in areas badly hit by the economic crisis. On Friday, Obama continued pressuring lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

President Obama: “It is inexcusable and irresponsible for any of us to get bogged down in distraction, delay or politics as usual, while millions of Americans are being put out of work. Now is the time for Congress to act. It’s time to pass an Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Plan to get our economy moving.”

Loopholes Could Bypass Bailout Pay Caps

In other economic news, questions are growing around President Obama’s crackdown on executive pay at taxpayer-rescued firms. Last week, Obama announced a $500,000 salary cap at firms receiving future government bailouts. The move followed outcry over news Wall Street firms paid out more than $18 billion in bonuses last year. But the Wall Street Journal reports the curbs have several loopholes that could negate its impact. Firms could still pay out higher salaries by changing executives’ titles, restructuring pay packages, or simply putting it to a shareholder vote. Executives and managers could also get more money, because the plan doesn’t limit awards of restricted stock. Critics have called on Obama to impose the plan retroactively so that it also applies to firms that have already received bailout money.

Bank Closures Bring 2009 Total to 9

Regulators have closed four banks in Georgia and California. The largest, County Bank of Merced, California, had $1.7 billion in assets and $1.3 billion in deposits. Nine banks have been shuttered so far this year.

Lawyer: Gitmo Conditions Deteriorating

A military attorney for a Guantanamo Bay prisoner is claiming prison conditions have worsened since President Obama took office. Lieutenant Colonel Yvonne Bradley told the Guardian of London at least fifty hunger-striking prisoners have been forced-fed while strapped to chairs and beaten if they resist. At least twenty prisoners are said to be in such poor shape they’ve been put on a "critical list." Bradley said the accounts of mass beatings of hunger-striking prisoners are unprecedented.

4 Gitmo Prisoners Returned to Iraq

In other news from Guantanamo Bay, the Iraqi government says four Iraqi prisoners have been returned to Iraq. The US says they were initially arrested in Afghanistan.

Appeal in Boeing Rendition Case to Test Obama on Torture, Secrecy

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, a federal appeals court will hear arguments today in a case seeking to reinstate a suit against a Boeing subsidiary accused of helping the CIA secretly transport prisoners to overseas torture chambers. The American Civil Liberties Union brought 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.” But it’s unclear whether government lawyers under President Obama will make the same argument before the court today. Legal observers say the case will mark a significant test of President Obama’s stated opposition to White House-backed torture and secrecy.

Biden: US Will Continue Bush Missile Program, But Open to Compromise

Vice President Joe Biden has announced the US will pursue the Bush administration’s controversial missile defense shield in eastern Europe. Speaking in Germany this weekend, Biden said the US would continue to develop missile defenses to counter what he called “a growing Iranian capability.” But he left open the possibility of a compromise with Russia, saying US-Russian ties should be repaired.

Vice President Joe Biden: “The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our alliance. It’s time — to paraphrase President Obama, it’s time to press the reset button."

The missile program has been widely derided as bellicose, expensive and useless to its stated goals of protecting national security. Poland would host ten ballistic missiles along with a radar site in the Czech Republic. The Bush administration claimed the missile system would protect Europe from Iranian missiles, but it’s widely seen as a first-strike weapon.

Report: US Support for Uganda Attack Led to Rebel Massacre

The New York Times has revealed covert US support for a Ugandan army attack on a rebel group helped lead to a massacre that killed as many as 900 civilians. With Bush administration approval, American military advisers helped the Ugandan military plan the attack on the Lord’s Resistance Army, a notorious rebel group. But the plan was poorly executed, leading rebel fighters free to kill scores of people as they fled in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Critics say the US should have anticipated the plan would fail and lead to deadly reprisals.

15,000 Flee Sri Lanka Fighting

In Sri Lanka, the number of refugees to escape fighting between government forces and Tamil Tigers rebels has now topped 15,000. Earlier today, the Sri Lankan military said at least twenty-eight people were killed when a suicide bomber blew herself up amongst a group of fleeing civilians. Some 250,000 people remain trapped amidst the intense fighting.

Iraqi Girl Killed in US Attack

In Iraq, an eight-year-old girl has been reportedly killed in an attack by US troops. Witnesses say several other civilians were injured when a US military convoy opened fire on a crowd of Shiite pilgrims traveling to the holy city of Karbala. The military says the shootings were accidental, following a mistaken weapons discharge.

Trial Date Set for Shoe-Throwing Iraqi Journalist

In other Iraq news, a trial date has been set for the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at former President George W. Bush during his farewell trip to Iraq last month. Muntadhar al-Zaidi will stand trial on February 19th on charges of assaulting a foreign leader. Zaidi faces fifteen years in prison. His attorney and family have alleged abusive treatment since his imprisonment.

UN Halts Gaza Aid Delivery in Hamas Dispute

In Israel and the Occupied Territories, the UN says it’s stopped aid deliveries into Gaza after Hamas forces seized a shipment for the second time. United Nations Relief and Works Agency spokesperson Christopher Gunness said Hamas seized ten trucks on Friday.

UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness: "The people of Gaza have suffered enough. They have gone through twenty-two days of conflict, and now we have a situation where their aid is jeopardized because their aid is being confiscated. This is a situation which must end immediately. The aid must be given back by the Hamas government."

Hamas called the incident a misunderstanding and said it won’t be repeated. Much of Gaza’s 1.5 million population depends on aid for survival. Meanwhile, Israel continues sporadic military attacks in Gaza. Earlier today, a Palestinian militant was killed near the town of Beit Hanoun when an Israeli tank fired from across the border.

Israel to Hold National Elections

Israelis head to the polls tomorrow in national elections. All three leading candidates —- Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni of Kadima, Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor, and front-runner Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud -— support attacking and blockading Gaza and the continued takeover of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank. Netanyahu has openly called for toppling the democratically elected Hamas government.

Khatami to Challenge Ahmadinejad in Iran Vote

In Iran, former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami has announced his candidacy in June elections. Khatami will face off against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is seeking re-election.

Bolivia Enacts New Constitution

In Bolivia, tens of thousands of people gathered on Saturday to mark the enactment of a new constitution. About 60 percent of Bolivians voted last month to advance indigenous rights and reaffirm state control over Bolivia’s natural gas reserves.

Bolivian President Evo Morales: “Since colonial times, we have been fighting against invasions and against oppression, and in this constitution of the Bolivian state is enshrined the deepest aspirations of the most neglected sectors, such as the workers and the indigenous people."

The new constitution will give the indigenous majority more seats in Congress and greater clout in the justice system. It also officially recognizes their pre-Columbian spiritual traditions and promotes indigenous languages.

Australia Wildfire Toll at 131

In Australia, at least 131 people have been killed in what’s being called Australia’s worst-ever wildfire. Police are treating at least some of the 400 fires as arson. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has called the alleged arsons an act of mass murder.

Haiti Pleads for Aid, Urges End to Indirect US Funding

The government of Haiti is making an emergency appeal for foreign aid. Meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Haitian President Rene Preval said Haiti needs as much as $100 million to avoid widespread unrest and collapse. Preval also urged Clinton to drop the US policy of funneling aid to Haiti through non-governmental organizations instead of directly to the state. Some of the groups used US aid to support the overthrow of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004.

Ex-Police Officer in Oakland Transit Shooting Freed on $3M Bail

And back in the United States, the former Oakland police officer who fled California after shooting and killing an unarmed African American transit passenger has been freed on bail. The former officer, Johannes Mehserle, was caught on videotape shooting twenty-two-year-old Oscar Grant in the back while Grant was lying face down on the ground on a subway platform. Grant worked as a butcher at an Oakland grocery store and was the father of a four-year-old daughter. Mehserle’s $3 million bail was posted by unknown sources. BART Police Chief Gary Gee drew controversy after encouraging officers to support Mehserle’s bail. Mehserle was released just as several protesters were arraigned for taking part in a protest against the killing that led to more than 100 arrests.

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