President-elect Barack Obama visited the White House Monday for the first time since his election victory last week. President Bush hosted Obama for a private meeting reportedly focusing on the economy.
Bush said he would back demands for an auto industry bailout if Democrats support the stalled “free trade” deal with Colombia. Congressional Democrats have held up the deal over human rights concerns. Obama cited the repeated killings of Colombian union leaders during his final debate with John McCain last month. Democrats want to use some of the $700 billion in bailout money for major car companies like General Motors. GM’s stock price has fallen to its lowest level in sixty years. The Democratic plan would give car companies up to $50 billion in taxpayer money. Neither Obama nor President Bush took questions after the meeting. Speaking at the G20 summit in Brazil, US Treasury Under Secretary David McCormick said the Bush administration is cooperating with the transition to an Obama White House.
US Treasury Under Secretary David McCormick: “The administration has been in touch with the Obama — President-elect Obama’s team, as well, and there’s an openness to making sure that he’s very much up to speed on what will be discussed, and may or may not participate depending on the interest of the President-elect.”
On foreign policy, the Washington Post is reporting the incoming Obama administration is planning what it calls a “more regional strategy” to the occupation of Afghanistan. The plan leaves open the possibility of holding talks with Iran and elements of the Taliban. Obama would also seek to renew what he’s called an aborted effort to capture Osama bin Laden. Obama has already vowed to increase the US troop deployment there.
In corporate bailout news, the Bush administration unveiled a new plan Monday to inject more money into the insurance giant American International Group. AIG will receive an additional $40 billion, bringing its taxpayer tab to $150 billion so far. The new plan also gives AIG more time to pay back the loan at a lower rate.
Meanwhile, the national mortgage giant Fannie Mae has reported a $29 billion third-quarter loss. Fannie Mae executives say they may seek another round of federal bailout money before the end of the year.
A new controversy has erupted over the Bush administration’s refusal to identify banks on the receiving end of almost $2 trillion in taxpayer loans. The Bloomberg news company has sued the Federal Reserve to release a list of borrowing banks and the troubled assets they’re putting up as collateral. The Fed says it won’t release the list to avoid financial panic. The bank loans have come outside of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout package and don’t require congressional approval. The loans were made under the auspices of eleven different government programs. Eight of them have been created in the past fifteen months.
A senior military advisory group is warning President-elect Obama the Pentagon’s budget is “not sustainable” and should be scaled back. According to the Boston Globe, the Defense Business Board has told Obama to cut expensive and obsolete weapons programs to focus on other priorities. An internal briefing says, “Business as usual is no longer an option.” A recent Government Accountability Office report found cost increases in the Pentagon’s ninety-five largest weapons programs went nearly $300 billion over initial estimates.
In Israel and the Occupied Territories, the Israeli government has re-imposed a cutoff of fuel shipments to the Gaza Strip. Gaza’s main power plant shut down last night, leaving hundreds of thousands of Palestinians without electricity. Areas across the Strip were plunged into darkness, and hospitals reported imminent shortages that could shut them down. Israel authorized a limited shipment earlier today. Israel has imposed several fuel blockades on Gaza, citing Palestinian rocket fire on nearby Israeli towns. Visiting Gaza, British Parliament member Nazir Ahmed said Israel should face international isolation for its siege of Gaza.
Nazir Ahmed: “It’s time that the international community said enough is enough, and if Israel is prepared to go down this route, then they must face isolation. This is unacceptable at a time when people of Gaza are already suffering. We have seen the result of bombing [of the plant last year], and those equipment has not been replaced even now. The capacity of this plant is down to one-third when it was supplying half of the Gazan electricity.”
As darkness fell across Gaza Monday, hundreds of children gathered for a candlelight vigil to protest the blockade. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh called the move an act of collective punishment.
Ismail Haniyeh: “This is not a breach of truce. This is a programmed Israeli policy, and the Egyptian host of this truce should interfere for the sake of stopping the daily bloodshed of the Palestinian people.”
Israel’s fuel blockade comes just days after Haniyeh said Hamas would accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. A 1967-based solution would mean Israeli withdrawal from all of Gaza and the occupied West Bank, where Israel continues to build settlements. Haniyeh made the comments at a meeting with European lawmakers who had sailed from Cyprus to protest Israel’s Gaza blockade.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, aid workers are warning of a cholera epidemic in eastern refugee camps holding thousands displaced by growing unrest. Megan Hunter of Doctors Without Borders says dozens of cases have already been confirmed.
Megan Hunter: '’We are concerned about the situation in the camp, because hygiene conditions are not very good, and cholera is a disease that is spread much more quickly when hygiene conditions are bad. So when there are not enough latrines, if people do not have enough access to clean water that they can properly wash their hands, they are at much more risk to get cholera than if they live in good hygienic conditions. So, because of that, we are concerned about this increase in cases that we've seen.’’
Some 250,000 people have been displaced in fighting between government forces and rebel militias in eastern Congo since August. The head of the UN mission to Congo, Alan Doss, accused rebels of committing war crimes in the village of Kiwanja.
Alan Doss: “We condemn it in the strongest terms, and we remind all concerned that under international humanitarian law and indeed under international law, these acts would be considered as war crimes.”
Human Rights Watch is calling for an increased UN peacekeeping force in the Congo on top of the existing 17,000 troops. A European Union proposal to send an additional 3,000 troops appears to have broken down.
Back in the United States, a federal judge has ruled a lawsuit seeking the release of Bush administration email records can proceed. On Monday, US District Judge Henry Kennedy rejected White House efforts to have the case dismissed. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the National Security Archive have filed suit over what they say are millions of missing White House email messages that should be on the public record.
On Capitol Hill, Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia has announced he’s stepping down as chair of the Appropriations Committee. Byrd had initially resisted a push from fellow Democrats to give up his post amidst concerns over his health. The ninety-year-old Byrd is the longest-serving member in the Senate’s history.
Former Vermont governor Howard Dean has announced he won’t seek another term as chair of the Democratic National Committee. Dean has been mentioned as a possible pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services under President-elect Obama.
Meanwhile, Dean’s predecessor, Terry McAuliffe is mulling a run for governor next year in Virginia. McCauliffe has signed papers setting up an exploration committee in the state.
And the New York Police Department has reportedly ended a policy of videotaping peaceful protesters at demonstrations. The New York Civil Liberties Union says the videotaping has been dropped in response to its lawsuit against the NYPD following the 2004 Republican National Convention. Police officials have apparently restored what are known as the Handschu guidelines that dictate how the police carries out political investigations. The NYCLU says the guidelines were changed last year, but it wasn’t informed until last month.