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Healthcare Bill Gets Boost as 2 Dems Pledge Support

The House Democratic leadership is approaching the votes needed to pass its massive healthcare reform bill. The measure gathered momentum on Wednesday when Democratic Congress member Dennis Kucinich of Ohio announced he would switch his vote and support the legislation even though it wouldn’t create a public option. At a Washington news conference, Kucinich said he is supporting the bill despite disagreeing with its contents.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich: "In the past week it’s become clear that the vote on the final health bill will be very close. I take this vote with the utmost seriousness. I have doubts about the bill. I do not think it is a step toward anything I’ve supported in the past. This is not the bill I wanted to support, even as I continue efforts until the last minute to try to modify the bill."

In another win for the White House and Democratic leaders, Congress member Dale Kildee of Michigan, an anti-abortion Democrat, also said he will vote for the bill. His backing came as a group representing 59,000 Catholic nuns also endorsed the legislation, saying its anti-abortion provisions were robust enough to support. The Democratic leadership is hoping the nuns’ backing will give political cover to anti-abortion Democrats still unsure of their vote. In Washington, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she remains confident Democrats will have enough votes.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: "Good afternoon. And a great afternoon it is, isn’t it, on this St. Patrick’s Day. Here we are in this beautiful weather, perfect climate for us to pass a wonderful bill to expand opportunity for access to healthcare and education in our country."

Senate OKs $18B Jobs Bill

The Senate has cleared an $18 billion jobs bill for President Obama’s signature. Eleven Republicans joined with Democrats to pass the measure by a 68-to-11 vote. The measure would provide tax breaks to companies for hiring new workers and keeping them on the job for at least a year. The Senate approved an earlier version of the bill this month but was forced to hold another vote after it went through the House. President Obama is expected to sign the measure today.

Obama Downplays Israeli Settlement Dispute

The Obama administration continues to downplay its criticism of the Israeli government following initial outrage over a settlement expansion plan announced during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit last week. In his first public comments on the settlement controversy, President Obama told Fox News that Israel remains "one of our closest allies… [with] a special bond that’s not going to go away." Obama described the settlement construction as "not helpful" and stressed that he had also criticized Palestinians for staging protests in East Jerusalem.

President Obama: "When I sent Vice President Biden there, it was at a moment where we were trying to restart talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The actions that were taken by the interior minister in Israel weren’t helpful to that process. Prime Minister Netanyahu acknowledged as much and apologized for it. And what we’ve said is we need both sides to take steps to make sure that we can rebuild trust, and yesterday when there were riots by the Palestinians against a synagogue that had reopened, we condemned them in the same way, because what we need right now is both sides to recognize that it is in their interests to move this peace process forward."

Lula Backs Palestinian Struggle in West Bank Visit

Obama’s comments come in contrast to Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who wrapped up a Middle East trip Wednesday with a visit to the West Bank. Speaking in Ramallah, Lula said Brazilians support the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva: "It gives me great emotion to be the first Brazilian president to step on Palestinian soil. In Brazil, when we think of Ramallah, Gaza and the West Bank, they evoke a fearless and courageous people fighting for their dignity, freedom and democracy. The self-determination of the Palestinians is a cause close to the heart of Brazilians."

Thai Guestworker Killed in Gaza Rocket Attack

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is in Russia today for international talks that will include the Israel-Palestine conflict. The State Department says Clinton has yet to receive a formal response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a US call to cancel the East Jerusalem settlement project. In other news from Israel and the Occupied Territories, one person has been killed in a Palestinian rocket attack from the Gaza Strip. The victim was a Thai guestworker working inside Israel.

5 Jailed US Citizens Charged in Pakistan

In Pakistan, five jailed US citizens have been formally charged with plotting terrorist attacks following their arrest last year. The five, all male students in their twenties, are accused of seeking to join militant groups to fight US troops in Afghanistan. They were arrested in December after their families reported them missing back home in Virginia. They’ve claimed they’ve been tortured since their arrest and had traveled to Pakistan only to help provide financial and medical support to fellow Muslims in Afghanistan.

Penn. Regulators Probe Suspected Drilling Contamination

In Pennsylvania, state environmental regulators are investigating whether a drilling project has contaminated local spring water near the town of Waterville. A foamy substance has been observed in water flowing into Pine Creek, near where a natural gas company has been drilling wells.

Senate Backs Reduction of Drug Sentencing Disparity

The Senate has approved a measure that would reduce the disparity in sentencing for possession of crack and powder cocaine. Under current laws, individuals convicted of crack cocaine possession are given the same mandatory sentence as someone with 100 times more powder cocaine. The Senate measure would reduce that ratio to eighteen to one. Drug reform advocates have called for the disparity to be completely eliminated.

Report: Insurance Company Had Policy Targeting HIV-Positive Policyholders

The Reuters news agency is reporting the insurance company formerly known as Fortis had a specific policy automatically targeting policyholders with HIV. The company, now known as Assurant Health, established a computer program and algorithm that subjected every HIV-positive policyholder to an automatic fraud investigation. The so-called "investigations" were used to revoke the policyholders’ insurance, often on wrong information, flimsy evidence, or no evidence at all. Last year, the South Carolina state Supreme Court ordered Fortis to pay $10 million in damages for rescinding the health coverage of a policyholder who had tested positive for HIV.

US Reviewing Restrictions on Gay Blood Donors

Federal health officials have announced they’re reviewing a nearly thirty-year-old policy restricting blood donations by gay males. The policy imposes a lifetime ban on blood donations from men who’ve had sex with another man at any time since 1977. Last week, Democratic Senator John Kerry spearheaded a letter signed by seventeen other senators calling on the Food and Drug Administration to revisit the policy, calling it "outdated, medically and scientifically unsound."

Detroit to Close 44 Schools

In Detroit, city officials have announced plans to close forty-four public schools later this year. The city says dwindling attendance, crumbling infrastructure and budget constraints has forced it to take action. The number could actually increase with an additional thirteen closures expected next year. Last week, officials in Kansas City, Missouri approved a plan to close twenty-six schools.

Witnesses: Madoff Assaulted by Fellow Prisoner

The Wall Street Journal is reporting three witnesses have confirmed the jailed financier Bernie Madoff was assaulted by another prisoner last year. Madoff is serving a 150-year sentence at a North Carolina prison after pleading guilty to running a $65 billion Ponzi scheme. Both Madoff’s attorneys and prison officials denied the alleged assault after reports surfaced last December. But three former prisoners now say they witnessed the attack. The assault was allegedly carried out by another prisoner who felt Madoff owed him money. Madoff was allegedly treated for a broken nose, fractured ribs and cuts to his head and face.

Muslim Scholar to Make First US Appearance Since Lifting of Ban

And a prominent Muslim scholar who was barred from the United States under the Bush administration is scheduled to appear at his first US event since the ban was lifted earlier this year. The scholar, Tariq Ramadan of Oxford University, will take part in a panel on Muslims in Europe and the West at New York’s Cooper Union next month. Ramadan was barred from taking a position at the University of Notre Dame in 2004 after the Bush administration denied his entry without explanation. The Bush administration later said it was because Ramadan had once given money to a Palestinian charity.


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