Republican presidential candidates gathered in Jacksonville Thursday night for their final debate before Tuesday’s Florida primary. The two presumed front-runners, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, sparred over immigration as part of a bid to court Florida’s Hispanic voters. Gingrich and Romney also exchanged words in their ongoing spat over who is closest tied to Wall Street firms that helped cause the nation’s financial crisis.
Newt Gingrich: "We discovered, to our shock, Governor Romney owns shares of both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Governor Romney made a million dollars off of selling some of that. Governor Romney owns share—has an investment in Goldman Sachs, which is today foreclosing on Floridians. So maybe Governor Romney, in the spirit of openness, should tell us how much money he’s made off of how many households that have been foreclosed by his investments."
Mitt Romney: "My investments are not made by me. My investments, for the last 10 years, have been in a blind trust, managed by a trustee. Secondly, the investments that they made—we’ve learned about this as we made our financial disclosure—had been in mutual funds and bonds. I don’t own stock in either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac."
President Obama continues his post-State of the Union speaking tour with a swing through Western states. On Thursday, Obama told a crowd in Las Vegas he hopes to boost domestic energy production, including drilling for natural gas.
President Obama: "The experts believe it could support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade. We, it turns out, are the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. We’ve got a lot of it. We’ve got a lot of it. America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk. But we’ve got to keep at it. We’ve got to take advantage of this incredible natural resource."
A new spending plan from the Pentagon would limit pay raises and institute other cuts to conventional military while escalating special operations and increasing the nation’s drone fleet. The Pentagon’s budget for next year is $525 billion, which is $6 billion less than this year. But despite plans for $487 billion in cuts over the next decade, the Defense Department’s base budget—which does not include the cost of an ongoing war in Afghanistan—is expected to increase, reaching $567 billion by 2017. Despite the removal of troops from Iraq, the Pentagon has requested $88.4 billion beyond the base budget to pay for overseas combat next year. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta detailed the proposed spending plan at the Pentagon.
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta: "Specifically, the department will request for its base budget $525 billion, in its base budget for fiscal year FY 13, and are—by the way, that compares to $531 billion in fiscal year 2012. And our hope and plan here is to try to rise to $567 billion by fiscal 2017. Make no mistake, the savings that we are proposing will impact on all 50 states and many districts, congressional districts, across America. This will be a test, a test of whether reducing the deficit is about talk or about action."
In Iraq, at least 32 people have been killed and another 50 wounded in a bombing in the capital Baghdad. The attack hit a funeral procession for three family members killed on Thursday. It was the latest explosion to hit Baghdad amid a wave of escalating violence.
On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the Iraq violence, calling on Iraq not to "blow this opportunity" in the wake of the recent U.S. troop withdrawal. Clinton’s comments come as the Iraqi government has announced plans to take legal action over the 2005 Haditha massacre after the last U.S. marine involved walked away with no jail time earlier this week. Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich was the last of eight marines charged for involvement in the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians. None have received jail terms. On Thursday, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the Iraqi government is exploring unspecified legal recourse on behalf of the victims’ families.
The United States has threatened to withhold annual aid to the Egyptian military after Egypt barred at least six Americans from leaving the country. Among those held back is the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Sam LaHood, who directs the Egyptian program of the International Republican Institute. The group’s Cairo office was raided late last month by Egyptian authorities, along with the offices of two other U.S.-backed organizations. In Washington, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland called on Egypt to allow the Americans’ departure without delay.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland: "We have several U.S. citizens working at various international non-governmental organizations in Egypt that have been questioned by judges in Egypt, and they are currently not being allowed to depart Egypt in connection with the government’s investigation of NGOs. We are urging the government of Egypt to lift these restrictions immediately and allow folks to come home as soon as possible. And we are hopeful that this issue will be resolved in nearest days."
Activists in Syria are reporting what has been described as a "terrifying massacre" in the city of Homs. Witnesses say more than 30 people, including small children, were killed in an attack by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. The reported killings come as the uprising against Assad has moved closer to the capital Damascus. On Thursday, rebel fighters clashed with government forces in the town of Douma, just north of the capital. The U.N. Security Council is expected to take up the fighting in Syria during a closed-door session today.
In Guatemala, former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt has been ordered to stand trial on accusations of genocide and other crimes during his 17-month rule. Montt seized power in 1982 in a military coup and has been accused of overseeing the murders of 17,000 political opponents and dissidents. On Thursday, a Guatemalan judge ruled there’s sufficient evidence for Montt to face charges for a single massacre of indigenous peasants. Outside the courtroom, protesters demanded that Montt be tried.
Juana Alicia Tiquira: "We want justice, because these cases cannot remain unpunished. There are thousands and thousands of brothers, children, men and women who were massacred during the internal armed conflict, and what we are asking now is justice. We are all present here. It doesn’t matter if it’s hot or cold. We want justice."
Montt has been placed under house arrest until a preliminary hearing in March.
The Senate has voted to further increase the debt limit by $1.2 trillion to $16.4 trillion. The 52-to-44 vote came mostly along party lines, with Democrats rejecting a recent measure from the Republican-controlled House to freeze the debt hike.
Two former aides to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are facing charges they participated in political fundraising on public time. The aides worked for Walker when he was Milwaukee County executive. An investigation found that Walker’s office used a private email network to communicate campaign-related material in 2010. Another former Walker employee was recently charged with embezzling thousands of dollars from a fund for the families of U.S. soldiers. Walker is facing a potential recall following his attempts to slash the rights of public sector unions.