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Senate Democrats have moved one step closer to passing a major healthcare reform bill. In a party line vote of 60-39, the Senate voted Saturday evening to open debate on the bill. Ahead of the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urged fellow Democrats to back the measure.
Sen. Harry Reid: “Don’t try to silence a great debate over a great crisis. Don’t let history show that when given the chance to debate and defend your position, to work with us for the good of our country and constituents, you ran and hid. You cannot wish away a great emergency by closing your eyes and pretending it doesn’t exist. There is an emergency, and it exists, and it exists now.”
The Democratic victory was assured earlier in the day when the party’s last two holdouts, Blanche Lincoln and Mary Landrieu, said they would support the motion but would not commit to backing the final bill without changes. Landrieu backed the vote only after she secured an additional $300 million in increased Medicaid funding to her state in 2011. Senators will begin debate on the bill next week.
In economic news, the unemployment rate rose in twenty-nine states last month. California, Delaware, South Carolina, Florida and the District of Columbia all registered record rates of unemployment in October. In California, the jobless rate has reached 12.5 percent; the state has lost nearly 700,000 jobs over the past year. Michigan still has the nation’s highest jobless rate at 15.1 percent. The president of the Chicago Federal Reserve, Charles Evans, said today he expects the national unemployment to peak at around 10.5 percent next spring and hopefully easing to about 9.5 percent by end of next year.
The New York Times reports Wall Street has found a new way to make money from the mortgage mess as millions of Americans struggle to hold on to their homes. Vulture funds are buying billions of dollars’ worth of discounted home loans, and then, in what might seem an act of charity, the funds are helping homeowners by reducing the size of the loans. But as part of these deals, the mortgages are being refinanced through lenders that work with government agencies like the Federal Housing Administration. This enables the vulture funds to pocket sizable profits by reselling new, government-insured loans to other federal agencies, which then bundle the mortgages into securities for sale to investors. While homeowners save money, the arrangement shifts nearly all the risk for the loans to the federal government — and, ultimately, taxpayers.
At the University of California, Santa Cruz, students have ended a four-day occupation of the school’s main administration building, Kerr Hall. About seventy students took over the building on Thursday to protest tuition hikes. Meanwhile, at the University of California, Berkeley, forty students were arrested on Friday night when campus police entered Wheeler Hall, which the students had taken over earlier in the day. Students at UCLA and UC Davis and San Francisco State also took over campus buildings last week. On Thursday, the UC Board of Regents voted to raise tuition by 32 percent.
US special forces have a launched a secretive program to finance anti-Taliban militias in at least fourteen areas of Afghanistan. The Guardian newspaper reports the US plans to spend as much as $1.3 billion on the program, known as the Community Defense Initiative. The plan has the backing of General Stanley McChrystal, but some experts warn the program could fuel long-term instability in Afghanistan.
In the Philippines, a group of twenty-one people, including politicians and journalists, have been found dead after they were abducted on the southern island of Mindanao. The military said the group were kidnapped as they were on their way to an election office to file candidacy papers for a candidate for the governor’s post. The candidate’s wife, sister and several other female relatives were among the group abducted and killed.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Israeli President Shimon Peres met on Sunday amid growing anger in the Arab world over Israel’s plans to expand settlements in the West Bank. Hosni Mubarak criticized Israel for continuing to build homes in occupied East Jerusalem.
Hosni Mubarak: “Jerusalem is not only a Palestinian problem, but it’s a problem that concerns all of the Muslims in the world. If we do not reach a solution on Jerusalem and stop its Judaization, it will be as if Israel has made an enemy of all Muslims in the world. And I have emphasized this topic because we want Jerusalem to be one of the topics on the negotiating table.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres dismissed the criticism of the Israeli settlements, saying it was a marginal issue.
In other news from the region, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem is reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has claimed almost 8,900 lives in the past two decades, the vast majority of them Palestinians. B’Tselem said Israeli forces killed nearly 7,400 Palestinians, including over 1,500 minors, both in Israel and the Occupied Territories during that period. Meanwhile, Palestinians killed just under 1,500 Israelis, including 139 minors. 2009 has been the deadliest year for Palestinians in the past two decades.
In news from Iran, former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi has been sentenced to six years in jail for his role in the protests following the disputed June 12 presidential elections. On Sunday, Abtahi was released on $700,000 bail. Last week, five Iranians received death sentences for taking part in the protests.
In climate change news, sixty-five world leaders have announced they will attend next month’s climate summit in Copenhagen. But leaders from the world’s top three carbon polluters — the United States, China and India — have not said yet if they will attend the meeting. Meanwhile, a new study by NASA has determined that about 57 billion tons of ice is melting annually in the East Antarctic ice sheets. The study raises new fears that global sea levels might rise faster than scientists had projected. Until now, scientists only thought ice was melting on the much smaller West Antarctic ice sheet. If the entire East Antarctic sheet melted, it could raise world sea levels by about fifty to sixty meters.
In other climate news, hackers broke into the computer system at the Hadley Climate Research Unit in Britain last week and posted online thousands of sensitive documents including emails from from climate scientists. Kevin Trenberth of the US National Center for Atmospheric Research says the leak of documents may be aimed at undermining talks at next month’s Copenhagen global climate summit. Trenberth accused the hackers of cherry-picking from the stolen data and distributing selected documents to try to undermine scientific consensus on man-made climate change.
Federal officials have launched an investigation of a radiation leak at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania on Saturday. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said about 175 workers were sent home when the contamination was detected. Some were exposed to low levels of radiation. Tests showed the contamination was confined to surfaces inside the plant, which is owned by Exelon, the nation’s largest generator of nuclear power. In 1979, a partial meltdown occurred in Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 reactor.
In business news, a jury in Florida has ordered cigarette maker Philip Morris USA to pay $300 million in damages to a sixty-one-year-old ex-smoker who is wheelchair-bound by emphysema. The award for Cindy Naugle is the largest to date among thousands of lawsuits filed in Florida against tobacco companies.
In Pennsylvania, two former judges accused of taking millions of dollars in kickbacks have been granted partial immunity from civil liability. The judges, Michael Conahan and Mark Ciavarella, are said to have received $2.6 million for ensuring that juvenile suspects were jailed in prisons operated by the companies PA Child Care and a sister company Western PA Child Care. On Friday, a US district judge ruled that Conahan and Ciavarella are shielded from civil liability for any actions they took from the bench. The judges can still be sued for their actions off the bench.
In Georgia, thousands of people protested Sunday outside the gates of Fort Benning to call for the closure of the military training center formerly known as the School of the Americas. The school, now known as WHISC, or the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is used to train Latin American soldiers in combat, counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics. Four people were arrested for entering the base.
In West Virginia, four opponents of mountaintop coal removal were arrested on Saturday in an action to protest mining at Coal River Mountain. Blasting at the mountain was temporarily stopped after two of the activists locked themselves to a drill rig. Two others held a banner with the message “Save Coal River Mountain.”
And in media news, Bill Moyers has announced his retirement from weekly television. The last broadcast of his show Bill Moyers Journal will air on April 30, 2010. That day will also mark the final episode of Now, hosted by David Brancaccio, which has been canceled by PBS.
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