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Admin to Seek Senate Ratification of Test Ban Treaty

The Obama administration has announced it will seek Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT. Speaking at the National Defense University Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden said the US remains committed to banning atomic weapons, but added the US will continue to modernize its arsenal until it’s assured all nuclear-armed states are on board. The administration has committed over $7 billion in spending on its nuclear arms sites. In a statement, Paul Kawika Martin of the group Peace Action praised the backing of the CTBT, but added, "Instead of spending $7 billion on facilities to upgrade nuclear weapons, that money would be more wisely spent on increasing the rate of dismantling the US stockpile. Fewer nuclear weapons makes Americans safer and sends the right message to the rest of the world." Biden, meanwhile, also said disarmament would be made easier by increased spending on a so-called missile defense shield.

Vice President Joe Biden: "Capabilities like an adaptive missile defensive shield, conventional warheads with worldwide reach, and others that are developing and being developed, will enable us to reduce the role of nuclear weapons as other nuclear powers begin to draw down even further, just as we wish to do. With these modern capabilities, even with deep nuclear reductions, we will remain undeniably strong and in a position to defend our interests against all, all our enemies."

Report: Largest Corporations Responsible for $2.2T in Environmental Damage

A newly revealed United Nations study estimates the world’s 3,000 largest corporations are responsible for over $2.2 trillion in environmental damage. The unpublished report was conducted by the Principles for Responsible Investment Initiative and the United Nations Environment Programme. The study says the companies would have to divert one-third of their profits to pay for the environmental damage they’ve caused.

Obama to Back Health Bill through Budget Reconciliation

The Obama administration appears to be backing calls for passing healthcare reform legislation through the congressional process known as budget reconciliation. On Thursday, the White House said it will unveil new healthcare legislation next week that could be attached to a budget bill. That would allow the Senate to approve the legislation with a simple majority instead of the sixty-vote supermajority needed to avoid a Republican filibuster.

Study: Highest Medicaid Enrollment in Decades

In other healthcare news, newly released figures show the recession has led more Americans to enroll in Medicaid than at any point since its establishment over forty years ago. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than three million people signed up for Medicaid in the year ending last June, increasing enrollment 7.5 percent to a record 46.8 million. Thirteen states reported double-digit increases. As enrollment has ballooned, states across the country have tried to cut benefits to keep up with budget constraints. The Kaiser study says twenty-nine states are considering further reductions or have already made them since the current fiscal year began.

Admin Criticizes Insurer Profits, Rising Premiums

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has issued a new report criticizing insurers for increasing the cost of medical care while pulling in record profits. On Thursday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius discussed the rising costs of insurance premiums across the United States.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: "In this last year alone, the largest insurance company in Michigan requested a 56 percent rate hike. In Connecticut, it was 24 percent. In Oregon, we saw a 20 percent rate hike being requested. Maine, it was 18.5 percent last year, which was actually denied, and this year they’ve come back and asked for a 23 percent rate hike. And most recently, which has gotten a lot of attention, is the WellPoint Anthem request for a 39 percent rate hike, which would affect 800,000 of their individual market customers."

Sebelius went on to contrast the increasing costs with record insurance industry profits last year.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius: "The five largest insurers in America have declared more than $12 billion worth of profits in 2009. WellPoint alone posted a $2.7 billion profit in the fourth quarter of 2009, just a week before they filed for a 39 percent rate increase."

UN Launches Record $1.4B Appeal for Haiti

The United Nations has launched a new appeal to meet its $1.4 billion goal for emergency aid to Haiti. On Thursday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the UN is still $768 million short of meeting its needs for Haitian relief.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: "The people of Haiti, so many lost their lives, their homes, their livelihoods. Their resilience, their patience, their solidarity, amid almost inconceivable hardship. To them, we say, once again, we are with you. We will help you to recover and rebuild."

Former President Bill Clinton, the UN special envoy for Haiti, joined Ban to make the appeal one week after undergoing heart surgery.

President Bill Clinton: "The Haitians aspire to have you come to Haiti as tourists, not donors. They want to build a country that can stand on its own two feet, that can be modern and strong and which has the capacity to meet human needs. But in order to do that, we have to do this flash appeal, because now there are still too many Haitians living from day to day."

Second Major Rainfall Since Quake Hits Haiti

Meanwhile in Haiti, fears of the coming rainy season were heightened Thursday when a heavy downpour hit Port-au-Prince. It was the second major rainstorm to hit Haiti since the earthquake struck. Thousands remain without any shelter, and tents provided to many displaced Haitians have been unable to withstand the rain.

Displaced Haitian Jean-Pierre Roge: "I’m staying on the ground, but the rain came all night. It’s causing trouble because I don’t have a tent. I don’t know what to do. We have one, two or three days until the rain comes, and I don’t know what to do. Everyone is in the same situation."

6 NATO Troops Killed in Afghanistan Offensive

In Afghanistan, six NATO troops have been killed in the deadliest day for NATO forces since launching the attack on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah last week. US commanders had claimed to have control over Marjah, but Thursday saw the most intense resistance of the six-day assault. Also Thursday, a NATO airs trike mistakenly killed seven Afghan police officers and wounded two others. The attack took place in the northern province of Kunduz.

IAEA: Iran Could Be Developing Nukes

The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog says it’s uncovered evidence Iran could be trying to develop a nuclear warhead. In a new report, the International Atomic Energy Agency warns, "The information available...raises concerns about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile." The report also confirms Iranian claims to have produced 20 percent enriched uranium, its highest level to date. It was the first report on Iran issued under new IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano.

US Changes Name of Iraq War

The Obama administration has changed the name of the US occupation of Iraq from Operation Iraqi Freedom. Defense Secretary Robert Gates issued a memo this week announcing the war in Iraq will be re-branded as "Operation New Dawn." Gates wrote the name change marks "a strong signal that Operation Iraqi Freedom has ended and our forces are operating under a new mission." Operation New Dawn shares the same name as the November 2004 US attack on Fallujah that killed hundreds of Iraqi civilians and displaced thousands more.

Niger President Overthrown in Military Coup

In Niger, President Mamadou Tandja has been overthrown in a military coup. Tandja sparked political unrest last year after he altered the constitution to allow him to remain in office indefinitely. The African Union has condemned the coup. The soldiers involved say they’re aiming to restore democracy to Niger.

Texas IRS Building Attacked in Suicide Flight

Back in the United States, an Internal Revenue Service building was set afire Thursday after a small plane crashed into it in an apparent suicide attack. The pilot of the plane, Joseph Stack, and an unidentified federal employee inside the building were killed. Before flying the plane, Stack set his own home on fire and left behind a rambling suicide note denouncing the IRS and corporate bailouts. In addition to the dead IRS employee, at least thirteen people were wounded, two in critical condition.

Obama Names Bipartisan Panel on Deficit

President Obama has named a bipartisan panel to offer proposals on tackling the national deficit. The eighteen-member commission will be led by former Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles.

President Obama: "Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles are taking on the impossible. They’re going to try to restore reason to the fiscal debate and come up with answers as co-chairs of the new national commission on fiscal responsibility and reform. I’m asking them to produce clear recommendations on how to cover the costs of all federal programs by 2015 and to meaningfully improve our long-term fiscal picture. I have every confidence that they’ll do that, because nobody is better qualified than these two."

US Reaches $1.25B Settlement with Black Farmers

The Obama administration has reached a $1.25 billion settlement in a class-action lawsuit over longtime racial discrimination against African American farmers. The government settled a first round of claims in 1999 after a group of farmers accused the Agricultural Department of systemically denying them aid and loans granted to white counterparts. The discriminatory policy forced farmers to lose their land or plunged them deeply into debt. The new settlement would cover farmers denied payments under the initial settlement. The deal now awaits congressional approval. John Boyd, a lead plaintiff and head of the National Black Farmers Association, said he agreed to the $1.25 billion settlement despite viewing it as insufficient. Boyd said, ’’Many of the farmers have already died waiting for justice, so I thought this was the right thing to do."

Family of Slain Journalist Brad Will Praises Release of Oaxaca Activist

In Mexico, an activist widely believed to be falsely accused of the murder of American journalist Brad Will has been freed after over eighteen months in prison. Will was shot and killed on October 27, 2006, while covering the popular uprising in the Mexican province of Oaxaca. His own camera captured the shooting, with armed men firing into the crowd from a distance. Will’s family and friends had long criticized the Mexican government for charging the activist, Juan Manuel Martínez Moreno, instead of state-backed agents. On Thursday, Will’s family welcomed Moreno’s release, calling him an "innocent man." The case remains unsolved.

Kerik Sentenced to 4-Year Term

And former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik has been sentenced to four years in prison. Kerik pleaded guilty in November to lying to the White House when he was nominated to head the Department of Homeland Security. He also admitted to tax evasion and receiving renovations from a construction firm linked to organized crime. Kerik will remain under house arrest until he begins his sentence in May.


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