In a major victory for President Obama and congressional Democrats, the House has approved a landmark measure that would expand healthcare to over 30 million uninsured Americans while forcing millions to purchase health insurance. The 219-to-212 vote late Sunday night came nearly three months after the Senate’s approval of the bill on Christmas Eve. No Republicans voted with the Democratic majority. The House later approved another package of changes that will now face a testy Senate vote before reaching Obama’s desk. Although the measure marks the largest expansion of health insurance since the founding of Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-1960s, it’s been criticized for further entrenching the for-profit healthcare system that rations care based on wealth. In a national address, Obama acknowledged the bill falls short of radical reform but said it marked a "victory" for the American people.
President Obama: "This legislation will not fix everything that ails our healthcare system, but it moves us decisively in the right direction. This is what change looks like. In the end, what this day represents is another stone laid firmly in the foundation of the American Dream. Tonight we answered the call of history as so many generations of Americans have before us. When faced with crisis, we did not shrink from our challenge; we overcame it."
The passage followed weeks of intense negotiations to secure the needed votes. Democratic leaders obtained the backing of progressive lawmakers despite excluding a public option. And several anti-abortion lawmakers signed on after President Obama agreed to issue an executive order reasserting that no federal money in the bill would be used to fund abortions. In a statement, Terry O’Neill of the National Organization for Women said, "The message we have received today is that it is acceptable to negotiate healthcare on the backs of women, and we couldn’t disagree more."
In another victory for the White House, the House also approved an education measure that would bring about a major overhaul of student aid. The bill would end government payments to banks that have provided student loans at exorbitant rates. Instead, the government would expand direct student loans and award an additional $36 billion in Pell Grants over ten years.
The day before the healthcare vote, hundreds of right-wing activists gathered outside the Capitol in a protest against the healthcare reform bill.
Protester: "Do these politicians know that we weren’t bussed in, we weren’t carried here, we weren’t organized by some group? We have no JumboTrons, and we have no big electronic systems here. These are the grassroots people in this country. This is Joe and Mary America that have come out here."
Several crowd members reportedly shouted discriminatory slurs at Democratic Congress members as they entered the Capitol. Congress member John Lewis and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus said they were called the N-word by a group of protesters. And Congress member Barney Frank, an openly gay member of Congress, was also yelled at with a homophobic slur.
As the healthcare vote gripped the Capitol, tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Washington in a major rally for immigration reform. Estimates of the crowd size ranged from 200,000 to as much as 500,000. Organizers held the "March for America" under the slogan of "immigration reform for new American families, economic justice for all American families." Democratic Congress member Nydia Velázquez, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called on Congress and President Obama to back immigration reform.
Rep. Nydia Velázquez: "We stand here to say to the Republican leadership in the Senate, to the Democrats in the Senate and also in the House, and the President Barack Obama, we want immigration reform now."
The immigration rally came one day after antiwar activists held a protest to mark the seven-year anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Organizers say around 10,000 people took part, making it the largest antiwar protest since President Obama’s decision to escalate the war in Afghanistan last year.
Protester: "This is a disgrace that this country, seven years after the invasion of Iraq, is still in that country and is upping things in Afghanistan. It is wrong. Innocent people die."
At least eight people were arrested after laying coffins at a White House fence. Among them was the peace activist Cindy Sheehan, whose group Peace of the Action helped organize the march. Rallies were also held in several other cities, including San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Seattle and Los Angeles.
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, four Palestinian teenagers have been killed and several more wounded in Israeli military attacks on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. On Saturday, two Palestinians, aged fifteen and seventeen, were shot dead near the West Bank city of Nablus. The Israeli military says it fired rubber bullets, but Palestinian doctors say the teens were killed by live ammunition. One of the victims was shot seven times. The killings came shortly after Palestinians held a protest against a Jewish settlement that’s been accused of trying to steal a vital Palestinian water well in the village of Iraq Burin. Another two Palestinians were shot dead the next day, also near Nablus. The Israeli military said they had tried to attack an Israeli soldier. Both victims were nineteen years old. Meanwhile in Gaza, thirteen Palestinians were wounded on Friday when Israel bombed Gaza’s abandoned international airport.
Amidst the attacks on the Occupied Territories, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu renewed his vow to continue expanding settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. Speaking in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he had sent the Obama administration a letter specifying his refusal to accept their call for a settlement freeze.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "Our policy on Jerusalem is the same policy followed by all Israeli governments over the past forty-two years, and it has not changed. As far as we are concerned, building in Jerusalem is the same as building in Tel Aviv. These are things that we made clear to the US administration."
Netanyahu’s vow to continue settlement building comes two days after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised him for offering what she called "useful and productive" proposals on resolving the dispute over Israeli settlements. Neither the Obama administration nor the Israeli government has released details of Netanyahu’s proposals.
Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with President Obama at the White House on Tuesday ahead of an appearance at the annual conference of the pro-Israeli government lobby AIPAC. Clinton is also scheduled to speak. Back on the West Bank, Palestinian lawmaker and physician Mustafa Barghouthi said Netanyahu is deliberately undermining any remote prospects for peace.
Mustafa Barghouthi: "Today Netanyahu did two major provocations. First of all, his army executed four young Palestinian civilians for no reason. They killed them in cold blood and with high-velocity bullets. And second, he declared that he’s going to continue settlement activities in East Jerusalem and in other parts of the Occupied Territories. This is a clear-cut provocation. His aim is to destroy any possibility for peace, any possibility for a Palestinian state and any possibility for a solution based on two-state solution."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has renewed calls for an end to the blockade of the Gaza Strip and all settlement building on the West Bank. Speaking in Ramallah on Saturday, Ban said every Israeli settlement is illegal.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: "The world has condemned Israel’s settlement expansion plans in East Jerusalem. Let us be clear: all settlement activities is illegal anywhere in occupied territory, and this must stop. The Quartet has reaffirmed it, that position."
The next day, Ban visited the Gaza Strip, where he said the US-backed Israeli blockade has caused "unacceptable suffering." His visit followed the release of a statement by the Quartet of the US, Russia, European Union and UN calling for an end to Israeli settlement activity and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within the next two years.
In Pakistan, at least eight people were killed Sunday in a US drone attack. Pakistani officials say the victims were all militants living near the Afghan border.
President Obama has released a videotaped message to the people of Iran for the second consecutive year. In a message timed to again coincide with the Iranian holiday of Nowruz, Obama said the US will pursue sanctions against Iran while remaining open to talks.
President Obama: "We are working with the international community to hold the Iranian government accountable, because they refuse to live up to their international obligations. But our offer of comprehensive diplomatic contacts and dialogue stands. Indeed, over the course of the last year, it is the Iranian government that has chosen to isolate itself and to choose a self-defeating focus on the past over a commitment to build a better future."
Obama also criticized the Iranian government’s violent crackdown on opposition activists following disputed elections last June. In response, Iran’s ruling cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, dismissed Obama’s claim to seek peace and accused the US of trying to cause a civil war in Iran.
In El Salvador, hundreds of people gathered in the capital San Salvador on Saturday to mark this week’s thirtieth anniversary of the killing of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. The so-called "voice of the voiceless," Romero was a prominent advocate for the poor and leading critic of the then-US-backed Salvadoran military government. He was killed while delivering mass at a hospital chapel, reportedly on the orders of the US-backed death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson. At the ceremony, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes apologized on behalf of previous governments that refused to investigate Romero’s killing.
Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes: "For the last thirty years, the official position has ignored this, ignored this act and the prophetic words of Monsignor Romero. Now, this government, under my presidency, is amending this historical error and publicly recognizing the legacy of Monsignor Romero. As the government of the republic, the government needed to support this national effort."
Back in Washington, the Senate Banking Committee begins debate today on a financial regulation measure unveiled by Senator Christopher Dodd last week. Dodd’s proposal gives new power to the Federal Reserve while gutting the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency and housing it inside the Fed. On Friday, Dodd said he would change a key provision on emergency loans after Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chair Sheila Bair warned it could lead to "backdoor bailouts." Ahead of the Senate Banking Committee session, President Obama urged lawmakers to support Dodd’s bill.
President Obama: "The fact is, it’s now been well over a year since the near collapse of the entire financial system, a crisis that helped wipe out more than eight million jobs and that continues to exact a terrible toll throughout our economy. Yet today, the very same system that allowed this turmoil remains in place. No one disputes that. No one denies that reform is needed. So the question we have to answer is very simple: will we learn from this crisis, or will we condemn ourselves to repeat it?"
Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke, meanwhile, has called on US lawmakers to consider reviewing the existence of firms deemed "too big to fail." In a speech to the Independent Community Bankers of America, Bernanke said, "It is unconscionable that the fate of the world economy should be so closely tied to the fortunes of a relatively small number of giant financial firms."
An award-winning Palestinian journalist is being prevented from entering the United States to deliver a series of lectures next month. Mohammed Omer had applied for a visa through the US consulate. But organizers of Omer’s lecture tour say the application has been put on extended hold, indefinitely barring him without explanation. In June 2008, Omer was awarded the Martha Gellhorn award, given to journalists who expose establishment propaganda. On his way back to the Gaza Strip, Israeli forces detained him and physically and psychologically abused him for over twelve hours.
And here in New York, city officials have disclosed the number of homeless increased a staggering 34 percent last year. More than 3,100 people lived on the streets in 2009, in addition to the near-record 38,000 listed as living in shelters.