Obama to Sign "Fiscal Cliff" Bill After Weeks of Tense Talks

President Obama is expected to sign a bill to deter the brunt of tax hikes and spending cuts known as the “fiscal cliff” that took effect at midnight yesterday. A compromise bill passed by the House late Tuesday makes Bush tax cuts permanent for about 99 percent of households. It allows tax increases of about 5 percent only on incomes above $400,000 for individuals or $450,000 for couples. The deal also extends unemployment benefits, renews tax credits geared toward low-income families and delays automatic cuts for military and other spending for two months. President Obama compromised on the tax issue after initially backing increases on family incomes of more than $250,000. Speaking at the White House Tuesday, Obama claimed the deal as a victory.

President Obama: "A central premise of my campaign for president was to change the tax code that was too skewed towards the wealthy at the expense of working middle-class Americans. Tonight, we’ve done that. Thanks to the votes of Democrats and Republicans in Congress, I will sign a law that raises taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, while preventing a middle-class tax hike that could have sent the economy back into recession and obviously had a severe impact on families all across America."

House Republicans had initially condemned the compromise bill for not cutting deeply enough into social programs. Still, 85 Republicans backed the bill, bringing the final tally in the House to 257 in favor with 167 voting against it. The compromise followed several weeks of tense negotiations between Republican and Democratic leaders.

House Leaders Draw Ire for Dropping Sandy Relief Package

House Republicans have reversed their pledge to take up an emergency aid bill this week for states devastated by Superstorm Sandy. The move potentially leaves the $60 billion aid package to die at the end of the legislative session Thursday. The House was expected to consider the bill today but dropped it following lengthy talks on the "fiscal cliff." The decision drew harsh condemnation from both sides of the aisle. Republican Rep. Michael Grimm of Staten Island — one of the areas hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy — said, "It is with an extremely heavy heart that I stand here almost in disbelief and somewhat ashamed." Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York blasted his colleagues for failing to take urgent action.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler: "Hurricane Sandy struck on October 29th, eight, nine weeks ago. It’s unprecedented that it should take so long. I can understand — I would not sympathize, but I can understand — with members who might say the amount requested is too much, we should change it, we should quibble with it, we should debate it. Fine. But to ignore it, to ignore the plight of millions of American citizens? Unprecedented, disgusting, unworthy of the leadership of this House. They should reconsider, or they should hang their heads in shame, Mr. Speaker."

Obama Signs Bill to Extend Warrantless Wiretapping

President Obama has signed into law an extension of the federal government’s sweeping powers to conduct warrantless wiretapping. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allows for the monitoring of domestic phone calls and emails as long as one of the parties in the communication is outside the United States. The controversial program was set to expire at the end of 2012 but has now been renewed for another five years.

Grounded Oil Rig Sparks Fresh Concerns over Arctic Drilling

An oil drilling rig belonging to Shell has run aground on an island in the Gulf of Alaska, providing what environmentalists say is further proof of the perils of Arctic oil drilling. The rig hit shore Monday night after crew members towing the vessel were forced to disconnect it amid stormy weather. Concerns mounted over a possible spill of diesel fuel and other contaminants on board. The rig’s crew had previously been evacuated. Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. Arctic Program, said the incident "calls into question our readiness to drill in such a remote and risky region. The Obama administration needs to impose Arctic-specific safety, training and spill response standards. Clearly we’re not there yet."

India: Anti-Rape Outcry Follows Gang-Rape Victim’s Death

Anti-rape protests are continuing in India after the death of a 23-year-old student who was gang-raped on a moving bus in New Delhi. The woman’s ashes were scattered in the Ganges River Tuesday, and many New Year’s celebrations were canceled after she succumbed to injuries sustained in the attack. The case has sparked a nationwide call for reforms to increase punishment for rapists and prevent legal cases from languishing. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in a candlelight vigil to honor the victim and call for the six suspects to be punished.

Anjali: "Being a woman, I feel it’s not just about these six people who have been arrested (for the gang-rape crime in New Delhi). It’s about everything that goes wrong against women. It’s about child abuse. It’s about domestic violence. It’s about rape. It’s about molestation, eve teasing. And a very simple thing that we can do, both men and women, is that we need to raise our voices."

The gang-rape case has shone a light on other instances of sexual violence in India, where one woman is raped every 20 minutes, according to the national crime registry.

Envoy Warns Syria Crisis Could "Turn into Hell"

Syrian government forces are reportedly battling with rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad near an airport in the northern province of Idlib. The violence comes a day after opposition groups say 75 people were killed across the country. On Tuesday, government air strikes hit rebel-held areas of Aleppo as clashes forced the city’s airport to shut down. Heavy fighting was also reported near Damascus. On Sunday, U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned Syria’s crisis is deepening.

Lakhdar Brahimi: "The situation in Syria is very bad, very, very bad, and the differences are increasing. In that, there needs to be a political solution, to please the Syrian people and to give the Syrian people their rights, their legal rights, or Syria will turn into hell."

Bahraini Policemen Sentenced to 7 Years for Beating Detainee to Death

Two policemen in Bahrain have been sentenced to seven years in jail each for beating an opposition member to death. The victim, Karim Fakhrawi, was the founder of an independent newspaper. He died in custody in April 2011. Bahrainis held fresh anti-government protests this week, despite an ongoing crackdown against demonstrators. Bahrain is a key U.S. ally and home to the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Ivory Coast: 61 Killed in Stampede

In Ivory Coast, at least 61 people were crushed to death in a stampede following a New Year’s fireworks show. Witnesses said police had tried to control a crowd of thousands pouring out of a stadium in the city of Abidjan. Scores of people were injured. Most of the dead were children and teenagers. The fireworks display was planned by the government to celebrate peace after months of violence following disputed elections in 2011.

7 Aid Workers Shot Dead in Pakistan

Seven aid workers have been shot dead in Pakistan in what appears to be the latest case of militants targeting health-related groups. Last month, at least nine volunteers with a polio vaccination drive were killed across Pakistan. Opposition to health efforts has spread after the CIA used a fake vaccination program to help find Osama bin Laden. Five of the workers killed in Tuesday’s attack were young women who worked as educators. The remaining two were health workers.

Report: Iraqi Civilian Deaths Rise in "Low-Level War"

A new tally shows the number of civilians killed in Iraq rose in 2012 for the first time in three years. The British-based group, Iraq Body Count, says about 4,500 civilians were killed in violence last year. The group said in a statement: "The latest evidence suggests that the country remains in a state of low-level war little changed since early 2009." Iraq Body Count’s figure is more than twice the number given by Iraqi officials who claim violence is actually dropping. On Monday, at least 23 people were killed and 87 wounded in a series of attacks across Iraq.

North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un Gives Rare New Year’s Speech

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has called for harmony with South Korea in what is believed to be the first New Year’s television address by a North Korean leader in 19 years. In a speech broadcast on New Year’s Day, Kim made no mention of the country’s controversial nuclear program and said the economy was North Korea’s top priority.

Kim Jong-un: "An important issue in putting an end to the division of the country and achieving its reunification is to remove confrontation between the North and the South. The past records of inter-Korean relations show that confrontation between fellow countrymen leads to nothing but war."

Chile: 8 Ex-Army Officers Charged in Murder of Singer Víctor Jara

In Chile, eight former army officers have been charged for their role in the murder of protest singer Víctor Jara 40 years ago. Jara was arrested and tortured after the U.S.-backed overthrow of democratically elected President Salvador Allende. His hands were smashed so he could not play guitar, before he was shot more than 40 times. A Chilean judge has now ordered the arrest of two officers believed to have committed the murder and six others who allegedly acted as accomplices. Human rights lawyer Nelson Caucoto discussed the significance of the decision.

Nelson Caucoto: "It is historical for this country when people like Víctor Jara, and additionally all of the other victims of the dictatorship, can have this possibility, that a judge can reach this level of the process and pinpoint the responsibility of the army officials."

Bolivia Nationalizes Operations of Spanish Firm Iberdrola

Bolivia has nationalized the operations of Spain’s largest utility company, Iberdrola. Buildings occupied by the energy firm were seized by Bolivian authorities last week following orders by President Evo Morales, who said the move was made to ensure equality.

President Evo Morales: "We considered this measure necessary to ensure equitable energy tariffs in the departments of Oruro and La Paz, so that the quality of electricity service is uniform in rural and urban areas. This measure guarantees equality to the citizens who live in rural areas and ensures their income with equitable tariffs and a quality and uniform service."

Venezuelan VP: Chávez Aware His Health Status Is Complex

Venezuelan Vice President Nicolás Maduro has visited President Hugo Chávez in Cuba, where he has been suffering from complications after a recent cancer surgery. In a television interview, Maduro attempted to assuage rumors about the president’s health, but gave little specific information about his condition.

Vice President Nicolás Maduro: "During these days, I was able to see him (President Hugo Chávez) twice and speak with him. He is completely conscious of the complexity of his post-operative state, and he expressly asked us keep the people informed, always with the truth, regardless of how hard it may be."

Pope Blasts "Unregulated Financial Capitalism"

Pope Benedict spoke to thousands of followers in the Vatican Tuesday on a day recognized by the Catholic Church as the World Day of Peace. Among other topics, the Pope addressed the issue of economic inequality.

Pope Benedict: "Although the world is unfortunately still marked as hotbed of tension and conflict caused by growing inequalities between rich and poor, from the dominance of a selfish and individualistic mentality also expressed by an unregulated financial capitalism, as well as various forms of terrorism and crime, I am convinced that the many works of peace, which are abundant in the world, testify to the deep sense of humanity for peace."

Woman Charged with Murder as Hate Crime in New York Subway Attack

In New York City, a woman has been charged with murder as a hate crime after allegedly pushing a man to his death on the subway tracks because she believed he was Muslim or Hindu. Erika Menendez reportedly told authorities, "I pushed a Muslim off the train tracks because I hate Hindus and Muslims — ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up." The victim, 46-year-old Sunando Sen, was a Hindu born in India. He was cremated on Monday.

WI State Senator: "Almost No Black People" Care About Kwanzaa

A Wisconsin state senator is drawing ire for his comments against the holiday of Kwanzaa. Republican State Senator Glenn Grothman released a statement titled, "Why Must We Still Hear About Kwanzaa." He wrote: "Of course, almost no black people today care about Kwanzaa — just white left-wingers who try to shove this down black people’s throats in an effort to divide Americans." The comments drew outrage from local democratic leader Meg Moen, who called them "jaw-dropping" and said, "Not only does Senator Grothman seem to find his inherit racism acceptable, he implores people to follow his lead and question a holiday that African Americans have been celebrating for years."

North Carolina Governor Grants Pardons of Innocence to Wilmington Ten

In a victory for civil rights advocates, North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue has issued pardons of innocence for the Wilmington Ten. The group of mostly African-American activists were falsely convicted and imprisoned for the firebombing of a white-owned store in the 1970s. Their pardons in the waning days of Perdue’s administration follow a campaign to vindicate unequivocally the Wilmington Ten after their convictions were overturned by a federal court decades ago. Newly surfaced documents show the prosecutor in the case made racially based notes next to potential jurors, writing comments like "KKK good" and "Uncle Tom type." In a statement about the Wilmington Ten, Gov. Perdue said, "These convictions were tainted by naked racism and represent an ugly stain on North Carolina’s criminal justice system that cannot be allowed to stand any longer." Wilmington Ten member Benjamin Chavis appeared on Democracy Now! last week before the victory to talk about what a pardon of innocence would mean.

Benjamin Chavis: "A pardon of innocence would mean that the state of North Carolina finally realizes that the trial, the unjust arrest charges, were all racially motivated, politically motivated. And now it’s time, 40 years later, for the state to remove this pain from the members of the Wilmington Ten, from the community of Wilmington, and from the state itself. It’s been an albatross around the state’s neck for over 40 years."

Leading Environmentalist Rebecca Tarbotton Dies at 39

Leading environmentalist Rebecca Tarbotton has died at the age of 39. Tarbotton was the executive director of Rainforest Action Network and an advocate for human rights. She died in a swimming accident in Mexico while on vacation. Rainforest Action Network said in a release: "Tarbotton was the first female executive director of RAN, and a strong female voice in a movement often dominated by men." Tarbotton appeared on Democracy Now! in May to talk about Rainforest Action Network’s campaign against Bank of America.

Rebecca Tarbotton: "RAN is involved in today with Bank of America, specifically, because climate change is the most real and present danger that we have to the environment and to people all around the country and the world, and Bank of America is the lead financier of coal in the country. And in particular, coal-fired power plants, for instance, are the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, which is the cause of climate change and climate chaos. So we’re here very specifically to say to Bank of America: 'Look, you need to get out of coal, if you're serious about this — or if any of us are serious about this country transitioning out of fossil fuels and into renewable energy.’"

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