Senate Confirms Chuck Hagel After GOP Ends Filibuster

The Senate has ended the logjam over defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel with a vote to confirm his nomination. On Tuesday, the Senate voted 58 to 41 in favor of Hagel’s bid, putting to rest a bipartisan dispute that stalled one of President Obama’s key Cabinet picks for weeks. Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said Hagel’s confirmation is long overdue.

Sen. Carl Levin: "The president needs a secretary of defense in whom he has trust, who will give him unvarnished advice, a person of integrity and one who has a personal understanding of the consequences of decisions relative to the use of military force. It is time to end the uncertainty relative to the leadership at the Pentagon."

Four Republicans joined Democrats in backing Hagel after dropping their filibuster attempt earlier in the day. Hagel had drawn opposition for deviating from the hawkish bipartisan consensus on foreign policy issues such as Iran, Israel and the Iraq war. He is expected to be sworn in today, replacing outgoing Pentagon chief Leon Panetta.

Obama, Boehner Spar as Sequestration Cuts Loom

Democrats and Republicans continue to trade barbs ahead of the looming sequestration deadline to avoid $85 billion in automatic spending cuts. Speaking to servicemembers in Virginia, President Obama said Republicans are refusing easy compromise in favor of protecting the wealthy.

President Obama: "There are too many Republicans in Congress right now who refuse to compromise even an inch when it comes to closing tax loopholes and special interest tax breaks. And that’s what’s holding things up right now. Keep in mind, nobody is asking them to raise income tax rates. All we’re asking is to consider closing tax loopholes and deductions that the speaker of the House, John Boehner, said he was willing to do just a few months ago."

The spending cuts will kick in on Friday unless the two sides can reach a deal. Responding to Obama in Washington, House Speaker John Boehner said Democrats are to blame for refusing to take on government spending.

Rep. John Boehner: "The American people know if the president gets more money, they’re just going to spend it. And the fact is is that he’s gotten his tax hikes. It’s time to focus on the real problem here in Washington, and that is spending."

Budget Fears Prompt Release of Hundreds of Undocumented Immigrants

The federal government has released hundreds of undocumented immigrants in anticipation of pending budget cuts under sequestration. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says it has released "several hundred" people set for deportation in order to reduce costs. The freed detainees will be closely monitored while their deportation cases proceed. In a statement, the National Immigrant Justice Center said the move "proves a point that immigrant rights advocates have been making for years. ... Those individuals who have been released will not only have the opportunity to remain with their families and have better access to legal counsel as they pursue their immigration cases, but they will do so at a great fiscal savings to the U.S. government."

Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to Sweeping Surveillance Law

The Supreme Court has ruled a group of human rights organizations and journalists cannot challenge the government’s warrantless domestic surveillance program because they can’t prove they are among its targets. In a five-to-four decision, the court’s conservative majority ruled the plaintiffs lacked "standing" or jurisdiction to proceed since they could not prove they have been spied on. The American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of human rights groups and journalists filed the lawsuit in 2008 hours after President Bush signed amendments granting the government almost unchecked power to monitor the international phone calls and emails of Americans.

Obama Admin Continues to Withhold Drone Memos from Congress

The Obama administration continues to stonewall Senate requests for additional Justice Department memos providing the legal rationale for the assassination program. The Washington Post reports the White House has continued to withhold the memos from lawmakers by citing "executive privilege and attorney-client privilege." The Senate Intelligence Committee delayed its vote on John Brennan’s CIA nomination earlier this month pending more information on the drone program from the White House. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, meanwhile, is also threatening to hold up Brennan’s confirmation vote unless the White House and Brennan respond to demands for more information on the Benghazi consulate attack in Libya as well as on Brennan’s stance on CIA torture.

Afghans Protest U.S. Special Forces in Wardak Province

Hundreds of Afghans braved snowy weather on Tuesday to protest the U.S. forces that have been ordered out of Wardak province. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has banned U.S. special forces from Wardak amidst allegations of the disappearances of nine Afghan civilians. The deputy head of Wardak’s provincial council said the protests will carry on until the missing civilians are found.

Hazrat Mohammad Janan: "These people have gathered here and want to know about nine villagers who have disappeared. Their families are concerned about them, and they are waiting for their sons to return. Until the fate of those nine missing people are cleared, the protests will continue."

NATO Withdraws Claim of Declining Taliban Attacks

The U.S.-led NATO occupation force in Afghanistan has withdrawn its claim that Taliban attacks declined last year. The force’s website had posted a figure that Taliban violence fell 7 percent in 2012. But the number was removed after an inquiry by the Associated Press.

Iran Mulls EU3+3 Offer to Ease Sanctions

International talks on Iran’s nuclear program have concluded in Kazakhstan. No major breakthroughs occurred, but the two sides agreed to continue negotiations in Turkey next month. The EU3 plus three — France, Germany, the United States, China Russia and Britain — submitted a proposal that would lift some international sanctions in return for Iran’s scaling back of uranium enrichment. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Iran will review the offer.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton: "The E3 plus three has tabled a revised proposal, which we believe is balanced and a fair basis for constructive talks. The offer addresses international concerns on the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program, but is also responsive to Iranian ideas."

Judge Rejects Claim Bradley Manning Denied Speedy Trial

The military judge overseeing the trial of alleged Army whistleblower Bradley Manning has ruled his right to a speedy trial has not been violated despite more than 1,000 days behind bars. Manning’s attorneys had accused prosecutors of "extreme foot-dragging," but the judge, Col. Denise Lind, rejected the argument, saying prosecutors have initiated "excludable delays." The ruling appears to end the last of Manning’s options to have his case dismissed before a full court-martial is scheduled to begin in June.

Appeals Court Strikes Down Florida, Georgia Drug Tests for Welfare Applicants

A federal appeals court has upheld a ruling blocking a Florida law requiring recipients of welfare benefits to pass a drug test. The measure bars applicants who test positive for drug use from receiving government assistance for one year or until they complete a drug abuse program. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals backed a lower court decision that found the law may violate the Constitution’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures. Tuesday’s ruling will also apply to a similar measure enacted in Georgia.

Arkansas Gov. Vetoes 20-Week Abortion Ban; Indiana Senate Advances Ultrasound Requirement

Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe of Arkansas has vetoed a measure banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The bill provides exceptions only in the case of rape or incest, or to save a mother’s life. Arkansas lawmakers could still push through the ban, however, with a simple majority vote. Seven other states currently ban abortion at 20 weeks. Meanwhile in Indiana, the state Senate has approved a Republican measure forcing women seeking to use the abortion pill RU-486 to first obtain an ultrasound. If enacted, the bill would make Indiana the ninth state requiring an ultrasound before terminating a pregnancy.

Federal Court Orders Release of Angola 3’s Albert Woodfox for 3rd Time

A federal judge has once again ordered the state of Louisiana to release Albert Woodfox, a former Black Panther who has spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement. Woodfox and another prisoner of the "Angola Three" were convicted of murdering a guard at Angola Prison. The Angola Three and their supporters say they were framed for their political activism. On Tuesday, the same federal judge that ordered Woodfox’s release in 2008 again ruled Woodfox should be set free on the basis of racial discrimination in his retrial. It was the third time Woodfox’s conviction has been overturned, but prosecutors successfully reversed the two previous victories. The state is expected to appeal once again to keep Woodfox behind bars.

Rallies Mark 1st Anniversary of Trayvon Martin Killing

Rallies were held across the country Tuesday to mark the first anniversary of the killing of the unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. On February 26, 2012, the 17-year-old high school junior was shot dead in Sanford, Florida, by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer who claimed he acted in self-defense. Police initially refused to arrest Zimmerman, but he was finally charged with second-degree murder after a wave of protests around the country. On Tuesday, Martin supporters gathered in California, Florida and New York to honor his memory and call attention to racial profiling and discrimination. Many donned hoodies as Martin had worn the night he was shot. Trayvon Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, addressed a crowd of hundreds in New York City’s Union Square.

Tracy Martin: "It’s a somber day for us, but also it’s a day of peace for us, because we know, as parents, that we have done all we can do to make our children’s lives right."

Also speaking at the New York event was the Oscar-winning actor and singer Jamie Foxx.

Jamie Foxx: "All we’re asking is simplicity. The simple thing is: Allow the court system to work. Allow a person to have their day in trial. That’s the thing that baffled me the most, that someone could take someone else’s life and then go home."

Zimmerman’s trial is set to begin in June, although his attorneys are seeking a further delay. He remains free on $1 million bail.


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