The congressional healthcare measure is being sent back for another House vote after Republicans successfully challenged it for violating reconciliation rules. The Senate parliamentarian has stricken what Democrats call two minor provisions, forcing the House to hold another vote. The Senate is expected to first pass the measure in a vote later today.
As Republicans challenge the measure in Congress, Democrats are voicing concern over security threats from angry constituents upset with the healthcare bill. At least ten House Democrats have reported death threats or incidents of harassment at their district offices since last week. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said some lawmakers are concerned for their safety.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer: "When people start talking in the rhetoric of putting people on firing lines, that if they don’t do something they will have physical harm done to them, that other rhetoric of that type, or they put a target on their faces, with cross-hairs — that activity ought to be unacceptable in our democracy."
Reporter: "Do you feel that your members are really at risk in terms of their security?"
Rep. Hoyer: "Yes. I think we’ve had very serious incidents that have occurred over the last forty-eight to seventy-two hours."
Hoyer says law enforcement agencies have offered at least ten lawmakers increased protection.
President Obama, meanwhile, has quietly signed an executive order reaffirming a ban on federal funding for abortions under the new healthcare bill. Obama had pledged to issue the order to win votes from anti-abortion Democrats. Unlike the healthcare measure signing ceremony of one day before, Wednesday’s signing of the executive order was held behind closed doors, with no media allowed to watch.
The US and Russia have reached what’s being described as their most extensive nuclear arms-control pact in nearly two decades. The new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, would replace a 1991 agreement that expired last year. Details have not been released, but long-range nuclear weapons would be reduced from their current ceiling of 2,200 by at least 500. A formal announcement is expected in the coming days.
The US and Israeli governments appear to remain at an impasse after two days of talks on Israeli settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories. Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu extended a stay in Washington to return to the White House on Wednesday. But Netanyahu has refused US calls for a settlement freeze, and his government even announced a new East Jerusalem settlement expansion right before the latest talks. Despite objecting to the Israeli plans, the Obama administration has not threatened any punitive measures, including the withholding of billions of dollars in US aid. At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reaffirmed his stance that Israeli settlements are illegal.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: "I made it clear that all settlement activity is illegal and that inserting settlers into Palestinian communities in Jerusalem is particularly troubling. This leads to tensions and undermines prospects for addressing the final status of Jerusalem. Yesterday’s announcement that final approval has been given to build twenty settlement units in Sheikh Jarrah is unacceptable."
The Wall Street Journal is reporting the US is scaling back a number of harsh measures against Iran in a bid to win Russian and Chinese support for a new round of UN sanctions. The canceled proposals include restrictions that would have effectively closed international airspace and waters to Iranian cargo and curbs on insurance on Iranian companies and Iranian bonds.
In Afghanistan, a large militant group has submitted a peace proposal to end fighting with the Afghan government and act as a "bridge" to the Taliban. The Islamic Party’s overture calls for a US withdrawal to begin next year. The group is headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a notorious warlord who received extensive US backing during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said talk of reconciliation with Afghan militants is premature.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "My personal opinion is that, in terms of reconciliation with the larger groups, it’s probably early yet — or the more senior levels, that the shift of momentum is not yet strong enough to convince the Taliban leaders that they are in fact going to lose. And it’s when they begin to have doubts about whether they can be successful that they may be willing to make a deal, and I don’t think we’re there yet."
The Obama administration is hosting a delegation of top Pakistani officials in Washington in a bid to increase military cooperation. Opening the talks on Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised US-Pakistani ties.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "Over the years, our relationship has been tested, but it has always endured. And I’m pleased we have come together again at this critical moment to reinforce our ties and recommit to building a partnership that will last. The United States comes to this dialogue with great respect for the nation and people of Pakistan. We recognize the central role that Pakistan plays in promoting security and prosperity."
The meetings come one day after a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee held a hearing on the legality of ongoing US drone attacks in Pakistan. Last week the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit demanding the US government disclose the legal basis for the drone attacks and information on the civilian casualties they’ve caused. American University law professor Kenneth Anderson told lawmakers the Obama administration’s secrecy on drone attacks could fuel legal action overseas.
Kenneth Anderson: "The long-term effect of that, given that there are not necessarily statutes of limitations on these kinds of acts, could be the problem of CIA officers or, for that matter, military officers or their lawyers being called up in front of international tribunals or courts in Spain or some place and say, ’You’ve engaged in extrajudicial execution or simple murder, and we’re going to investigate and indict.’"
In El Salvador, the slain Salvadoran Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was honored Wednesday on the thirtieth anniversary of his assassination. Known as the "voice of the voiceless," Romero was a prominent advocate for the poor and a leading critic of the US-backed Salvadoran military government. He was killed while delivering mass at a hospital chapel by members of a US-backed death squad. On Wednesday, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes apologized for Romero’s killing on behalf of the Salvadoran government.
Mauricio Funes: "I ask forgiveness from the thousands of families who were affected by this type of illegal and unacceptable violence, and especially to members of the religious communities represented by the spirit of Monsignor Romero and who maintain alive his legacy of peace and respect for human rights. Again, as president of the republic, I ask for forgiveness in the name of the Salvadoran state for this assassination that occurred thirty years ago and which took our best patriot from us."
Funes’ statement marks the first time the Salvadoran government has taken responsibility for Romero’s murder.
In Argentina, thousands of people rallied in Buenos Aires on Wednesday to mark the anniversary of the 1976 coup that launched a seven-year military dictatorship. The date is marked every year as Truth and Justice Memorial Day, with calls to probe unsolved disappearances and prosecute former military officials. Argentine President Cristina Fernández addressed with a crowd with a pledge to pursue justice.
Argentine President Cristina Fernández: "Allow me to make a commitment in front of you, in front of all of you, in front of all Argentines, that if we do not get justice in Argentina, as president, I will take it to other international courts to get justice."
A tiny island in the Bay of Bengal has disappeared underneath rising sea levels. The uninhabited island had been the source of dispute between India and Bangladesh for nearly three decades. Sugata Hazra, an oceanographer at the School of Oceanographic Studies in Calcutta, said, "What these two countries could not achieve from years of talking, has been resolved by global warming."
Back in the United States, the Pentagon is expected to announce today new curbs on the enforcement of the ban on openly gay servicemembers in the US military. Under the new rules, the military will no longer probe the sexual orientation of servicemembers based on anonymous complaints, will restrict third-party testimony, and order a high-level review of all cases. Administration officials described the measures as temporary until Congress fully repeals "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."
The New York Times is reporting top Vatican officials, including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict XVI — failed to defrock a Wisconsin-based priest who molested as many 200 deaf boys. The priest, Lawrence C. Murphy, worked at a school for deaf children from 1950 to 1974. Internal documents show Vatican officials, including Ratzinger, knew of the allegations but were most concerned with protecting the Church’s image. The news comes as the Vatican says it’s accepted the resignation of a bishop accused of mishandling abuse allegations in Ireland.
And in Indonesia, a leading television news network is reporting the Indonesian military is planning to charge journalist Allan Nairn with "smearing [its] good name." In an appearance on Democracy Now! last week, Allan exposed that US-backed Indonesian armed forces assassinated a series of civilian activists in the province of Aceh last year. Democracy Now! reached Allan earlier today just before going to air.
Allan Nairn: "TV1, the Indonesian news channel, is running a text headline at the bottom of the screen saying the TNI, the Indonesian armed forces, are planning to charge me, to have me arrested. They then ran a second text headline at the bottom of the screen saying that they have filed such charges for tarnishing the name of TNI, the name of the armed forces. So it’s slightly ambiguous whether they are merely planning to have me arrested or whether they have already filed the papers with the police to do so."
Amy Goodman: "And what does smearing the name of the military mean? What is the penalty for that?"
Allan Nairn: "Well, there’s a whole series of statutes, but lawyers I’ve spoken to say it could involve up to six years in prison."
Allan Nairn broke the story just as the White House is engaged in fierce behind-the-scenes negotiations with Congress on restoring Indonesian military aid. Nairn has issued a public challenge welcoming his arrest so that he can face off with the military and expose the facts in open court.