Obama Backs Reconciliation Vote on Healthcare Reform

President Obama has officially endorsed calls for approving healthcare reform legislation through the legislative process known as budget reconciliation. This would enable Senate Democrats to pass a healthcare bill with fifty-one votes, rather than the sixty votes they would need to overcome a Republican filibuster. On Wednesday, Obama rejected Republican calls for starting over on healthcare reform.

President Obama: "But given these honest and substantial differences between the parties about the need to regulate the insurance industry and the need to help millions of middle-class families get insurance, I don’t see how another year of negotiations would help. Moreover, the insurance companies aren’t starting over. They’re continuing to raise premiums and deny coverage as we speak. For us to start over now could simply lead to delay that could last for another decade, or even more."

Obama’s announcement sets the stage for a vote in the coming weeks. Although they won’t be able to filibuster, Republicans are expected to mount a major challenge to the bill by offering scores of amendments and challenging provisions over their effect on the federal budget.

9 Killed in Iraq Bombings

In Iraq, at least nine people have been killed in separate suicide bombing attacks earlier today. Seven were killed when a bomber struck a crowded Baghdad market. The attacks come as Iraqis have begun early voting ahead of Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Violence has increased in the lead-up to the vote, prompting Obama administration officials to float the idea of delaying the planned September deadline for withdrawing combat troops.

Biden Vows Ongoing US Combat Operations After Pullout

On Wednesday, Vice President Joe Biden said the US would continue military operations after the deadline, saying the majority of remaining troops "will still be guys who can shoot straight and go get bad guys…We’re not leaving behind cooks and quartermasters."

Report: High Number of Birth Defects Seen in Fallujah

In other Iraq news, BBC News is reporting the town of Fallujah is experiencing an unusually high number of birth defects among its newborn children. One hospital doctor reported seeing two or three cases of birth defects each day, which would translate to over a thousand per year. Doctors and parents are said to widely blame US weaponry used during the two major attacks on Fallujah in 2004. The assaults killed hundreds of Fallujah residents and displaced thousands more.

Iran Arrests Opposition Activists

In Iran, government forces appear to be intensifying a crackdown on opposition members. On Wednesday, at least six human rights advocates were reported arrested. Human rights groups have voiced concern over the fate of a twenty-year-old university student they believe has been sentenced to death on charges of throwing rocks at a rally in December. The student, Mohammad-Amin Valian, is said to face imminent execution.

US Circulates New Draft of Iran Sanctions

Meanwhile, at the United Nations, the Obama administration has begun circulating a new round of proposed sanctions against Iran. On Wednesday, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva rejected new sanctions on Iran ahead of a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying, "The prudent thing is to establish negotiations."

Clinton: US "Deeply Concerned" about Venezuela

Clinton’s visit to Brazil came as part of her first visit to Latin America as Secretary of State. It comes one week after Latin American and Caribbean nations agreed to form a new regional body excluding the United States and Canada as an alternative to the Organization of American States. At a news conference, Clinton criticized the Venezuelan government.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: "We are deeply concerned about the behavior of the Venezuelan government, which we think is unproductive with respect to its relations with certain neighbors, which we believe is limiting slowly, but surely, the freedoms within Venezuela, therefore adversely impacting the Venezuelan people. And we would hope that there could be a new start on the part of the Venezuelan leadership to restore full democracy, to restore freedom of the press, to restore private property, and return to a free market economy. We wish Venezuela were looking more to its south and looking at Brazil and looking at Chile."

Arab League Backs Resumption of Mideast Peace Talks

The Arab League has endorsed calls to revive indirect talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators. The talks have been suspended amidst Palestinian opposition to ongoing Israeli settlement construction and home demolitions in the occupied West Bank. On Wednesday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat urged the Obama administration to become more involved in peace talks.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat: "Have no illusion, that upon the Israeli practices, Arabs saw it very, very clear that this Israeli government is undermining the efforts, but nevertheless a chance was given. We hope that the American administration will seize this opportunity in the forthcoming months in order to introduce its pledging or proposals of the two states on the 1967 borders."

HRW: Attacks Increasing Against Honduran Coup Opponents

In Honduras, Human Rights Watch is warning of ongoing attacks against opponents of the coup that overthrew then-President Manuel Zelaya last year. On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said at least three people have been killed and another eight jailed in what appear to be politically motivated attacks over the past month. The majority of victims were members of the National Popular Resistance Front, which opposed the coup and boycotted the vote that elected Honduran President Porfirio Lobo.

Report: US Mulls Ending Training Ban on Atrocity-Linked Indonesian Unit

The Washington Post is reporting the Obama administration is considering lifting a twelve-year-old ban on training an elite Indonesian military unit linked to scores of abuses. Under the proposal, the US military would test a training program for younger members of the Kopassus. Four top members of the Kopassus are currently in Washington to discuss the plan. The proposal comes ahead of President Obama’s scheduled visit to Indonesia later this month.

Rangel Takes Leave as Ways and Means Chair

On Capitol Hill, Democratic Congress member Charles Rangel of New York has announced he’s taking a leave of absence from his post as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. The move comes days after the House Ethics Committee faulted Rangel for accepting corporate-sponsored trips to the Caribbean. On Wednesday, Rangel said he was temporarily stepping aside to avoid becoming a liability amidst the healthcare reform push and ahead of the November mid-term elections.

Rep. Charles Rangel: "In order to avoid my colleagues having to defend me during their elections, I have this morning sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi asking her to grant me a leave of absence until such time as the Ethics Committee completes its work."

General: Wars Hamper Training of US Troops

And the top general in charge of training the US Army is warning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are hampering efforts to train US troops. In a memo last month, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the commander of the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, said the Army’s training ability is "increasingly at risk." Dempsey says the wars have forced the military to rely on outside contractors to train troops, with just 30 percent of instructors now coming from the Army’s own ranks.

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