The Obama administration is intensifying efforts for passage of a financial regulation overhaul on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, Obama met with congressional leaders at the White House for talks on the pending Senate bill. After the meeting, Obama rejected Republican claims that Democratic proposals would open the door to future bailouts.
President Obama: "We want to get that into daylight so that regulators and ordinary Americans know what’s going on when it comes to this huge segment of the financial system. I am absolutely confident that the bill that emerges is going to be a bill that prevents bailouts. That’s the goal."
Among the proposals under fire from Republicans is a measure from Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. Lincoln has backed rules that would force large banks to stop trading in most forms of derivatives.
New figures show US foreclosures are at a record high. According to RealtyTrac, foreclosure filings topped 367,000 last month, the highest monthly total since RealtyTrac began issuing reports in January 2005. Nearly 260,000 homes and other properties were repossessed in the first quarter of the fiscal year. That’s an all-time record and a 35 percent jump from the previous year.
The figures come as a government watchdog says the Obama administration’s foreclosure prevention program is failing to help millions of people in danger of losing their homes. The Congressional Oversight Panel says the Making Home Affordable Program, HAMP, has helped just one borrower for every ten that have lost their homes. Panel chair Elizabeth Warren said, "[The Treasury Department]’s response is lagging behind the pace of the crisis. It also seems clear that [its] programs will not reach the overwhelming majority of homeowners in trouble." Warren’s report comes as the US is seeing a record number of foreclosures.
The financial giant JPMorgan Chase has posted a $3.3 billion first-quarter profit, a 57 percent increase from last year. The firm has received over $25 billion under the taxpayer-funded bailout. In related news, students from this year’s graduating class at Syracuse University have launched a campaign to cancel a commencement address from JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. The students say they oppose Dimon’s appearance at their graduation because of his company’s role in the nation’s financial meltdown. An online student petition has gathered 900 signatures so far.
New figures show the gap between US contractors and soldiers in Afghanistan continues to widen. According to the Congressional Research Service, there were over 107,000 US-hired contractors in Afghanistan as of February, compared to 78,000 US soldiers. Contractor deaths are also on the rise. Of the 289 civilians that have died under US employ in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001, 100 have died in the last six months.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced a measure calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. On Wednesday, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin joined Democratic Congress member Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Republican Congress member Walter Jones of North Carolina in calling for a "flexible" timetable for a US withdrawal. The measure also calls for increasing oversight of taxpayer-funded contractors in Afghanistan.
At the United Nations, talks have resumed between the five permanent Security Council members on a new round of sanctions against Iran. A closed-door session was held Wednesday between diplomats from the US, Russia, China, Britain and France, as well as Germany. The talks came as top military officials appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee for a hearing on Iran’s nuclear activities. The officials said the Pentagon believes Iran could produce enough weapons-grade enriched uranium within a year, but would need another three to five years to produce a deliverable weapon. In his opening remarks, Republican Senator John McCain said the US should "pull the trigger" on sanctioning Iran.
Sen. John McCain: "The list goes on and on of the threats we have — that we have made to the Iranians, and so far, no action. George Shultz, my favorite Secretary of State in all the world, once said his Marine drill instructor told him never point a gun at somebody unless you’re ready to pull the trigger. We keep pointing the gun. We haven’t pulled a single trigger yet. And it’s about time that we did."
Amidst the scrutiny on Iran, the Israeli government has reiterated its refusal to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. On Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak responded to President Obama’s call for "all countries" to ratify the NPT.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak: "To our friends and our allies, we say there is no room to pressure Israel into signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel has never threatened to destroy other countries or nations, whereas Iran today, and in the past also Syria, Libya and Iraq, that have signed the treaty, have broken it systematically with explicit threats on Israel’s existence."
Meanwhile, in the Occupied Territories, a mosque near the West Bank town of Nablus has been vandalized by a group of Israeli settlers. The unidentified settlers scrawled graffiti on the mosque and set fire to two nearby cars.
A Brazilian federal court has delayed bidding on a major hydroelectric dam in the Amazon rainforest. The $11 billion Belo Monte project was approved for construction earlier this year. If completed, it will be the world’s third largest hydroelectric dam. Bidding was initially set to begin next week. But on Wednesday, a federal judge in Brazil’s Para state put the bidding on hold, saying more time was needed to address environmental concerns surrounding the project. Opponents say the dam will devastate tens of thousands of indigenous Amazonian residents and threaten wildlife.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has begun a Latin America trip with the aim of strengthening regional US military ties. Gates met with top officials in Peru on Wednesday before traveling to Colombia. Gates’ trip comes on the heels of a new military cooperation deal between the US and Brazil signed earlier this week. Speaking in Peru, Gates denied US military agreements pose a threat to the region.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "The purpose of my trip here in South America is a positive purpose, and it is to strengthen our friendship and our military-to-military cooperation with Peru and Colombia. These arrangements between ourselves and Brazil, ourselves and Peru, ourselves and Colombia, are about these countries, not about anybody else."
Dozens of Colombians have filed a class-action lawsuit against fruit giant Chiquita Brands International for its role in financing a right-wing paramilitary group in the 1990s. In 2007, Chiquita admitted to paying millions of dollars to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, known as the AUC. Some of the plaintiffs allege they were injured or had family members killed as a result of Chiquita’s support for the group.
In West Virginia, Governor Joe Manchin is calling on mines across the state to suspend production on Friday to honor the twenty-nine victims of last week’s mine disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine. Manchin has also ordered state inspectors to probe mines cited for repeated combustion risks within the next two weeks. Meanwhile, the Mining Safety and Health Administration has revealed the Upper Big Branch Mine was on a list of forty-eight mines earlier this year deemed to have enough violations to warrant at least a temporary closure. But regulators couldn’t take action because a heavy backlog of appeals made it impossible to establish the necessary finding of the mines having a "pattern of violations."
Attorney General Eric Holder says the Obama administration may still decide to try suspects in the 9/11 attacks in a New York courtroom. The White House backed off the proposal earlier this year after coming under heavy opposition from New York lawmakers. But appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder said it will take weeks for the White House to conclude a review of the proposed trials and that New York has not been ruled out as a potential site.
In labor news, Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern has confirmed reports he’s stepping down. Stern made the announcement in a videotaped message to SEIU members.
Andy Stern: "At age twenty-two, I joined SEIU. And for the next thirty-eight years, fourteen as president, I’ve had the joy and the privilege to work every day to gain respect for working people. But in life, there’s a time to learn, a time to lead, and then, there’s a time to leave. And shortly will be my time to end my SEIU journey."
And a new study says uninsured Americans wait considerably longer to seek medical attention for symptoms of heart attacks than those with insurance. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that 48.6 percent of uninsured patients who survived heart attacks waited over six hours before getting to a hospital. By contrast, 39.3 percent of insured patients who survived heart attacks waited before getting care.
In related news, the wife of the late rock musician Alex Chilton has revealed a lack of health insurance may have been a factor in his recent death. Chilton was the lead singer and guitarist for the widely influential band Big Star. He died last month at the age of fifty-nine after suffering a heart attack. In an interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Chilton’s wife said he had experienced medical symptoms in the week before his death but did not seek medical attention in part because he lacked insurance.