House Democrats have unveiled a nearly final version of the healthcare reform bill ahead of a vote expected on Sunday. Democratic leaders have yet to secure the 216 votes needed to approve the measure, which would extend coverage to more than 30 million people while forcing millions of Americans to buy private health insurance. At least two Democratic Congress members announced they would vote for the bill on Thursday, but Democrats are said to remain around six votes short. Promoting the measure in Washington, President Obama cited new estimates from the independent Congressional Budget Office that the measure would help reduce the federal deficit.
President Obama: “This morning a new analysis from the Congressional Budget Office concludes that the reform we seek would bring $1.3 trillion in deficit reduction over the next two decades. That makes this legislation the most significant effort to reduce deficits since the Balanced Budget Act in the 1990s. And this is — this is but one virtue of a reform that will bring new accountability to the insurance industry and greater economic security to all Americans.”
Obama spoke after the White House announced he would delay an overseas trip to remain in Washington for the vote. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama will reschedule his visit to Indonesia and Australia for June.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: “The scheduling worked throughout the night, when it became apparent that the bill wasn’t going to post yesterday, to see about moving the trip back. We looked through and pulled out what very little padding remained from having moved the trip from Thursday to Sunday, and unless we took off basically extremely early in the afternoon on Sunday, it wasn’t going to be possible to do.”
As healthcare legislation enters its final stages, the immigration reform debate is heating up in Washington. On Thursday, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina unveiled a bipartisan measure that would force undocumented workers to admit to breaking the law and require that workers carry biometric cards affirming their eligibility for employment. In a statement, President Obama called the proposal “the basis for moving forward.” The measure comes ahead of a major immigrant rights rally in Washington on Sunday expected to draw thousands of people.
The Obama administration has announced it will send special envoy George Mitchell to Israel and the Occupied Territories in a bid to restart indirect talks. Mitchell’s initial visit was canceled last week after Israel announced construction plans for 1,600 new homes in an East Jerusalem settlement. But on Thursday, the White House said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had made specific proposals that swayed administration officials to authorize Mitchell’s return. It’s unclear if Netanyahu agreed to the basic US demand of canceling the settlement expansion as details have not been released. The Washington Post reports Netanyahu offered only to delay construction by a few years but not to cancel it outright. The delay would come as part of a proposed policy under which Israel would continue to build settlements but promise not to publicize the construction in the same way that embarrassed Vice President Joe Biden. The Washington Post says the policy would be akin to “'a don't ask, don’t tell’ policy for settlements.” If confirmed, the proposals would contradict a plan endorsed by the US earlier today. In a statement, the Middle East quartet of the US, Russia, the UN and the European Union called for an Israeli settlement freeze and the establishment of a Palestinian state within the next two years.
Meanwhile, in Israel and the Occupied Territories, the Israeli government has launched new attacks on the Gaza Strip. A series of Israeli missiles hit Gaza overnight, leaving at least two Palestinians wounded. The attack follows a Palestinian rocket attack that killed a foreign guest worker inside Israel. Militants said the rocket attack was retaliation for the ongoing Israeli crackdown on protests on the West Bank. On Thursday, a group of Palestinian children were detained after throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers. An unidentified resident of Hebron said his son was seized by Israeli soldiers.
Hebron resident: “My children were playing soccer in front of the house, and they came again and took them and said they were throwing stones. They say they have pictures of them throwing stones. The army are liars.”
The Obama administration is criticizing Russia for announcing plans to finish construction of a long-delayed civilian nuclear power plant in Iran. Speaking during a visit to Russia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US opposes Russia’s assistance with the Bushehr plant.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “We have consistently said that Iran is entitled to civil nuclear power. It is a nuclear weapons program that it is not entitled to. And if it reassures the world, or if its behavior is changed because of international sanctions, then they can pursue peaceful, civil nuclear power. In the absence of those reassurances, we think it would be premature to go forward with any project at this time, because we want to send an unequivocal message to the Iranians.”
During her stay in Russia, Clinton also took part in talks on reducing the number of US and Russian nuclear warheads under a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START. Both sides say they are “at the finish line” in reaching a major agreement.
In Afghanistan, the US military says it’s in the early stages of a major new offensive in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. US forces have begun securing key areas ahead of an intensified military assault expected in the coming weeks.
The Guardian of London is reporting former Prime Minister Tony Blair has received payments from a South Korean oil firm with extensive oil interests in the US and Iraq. The company, UI Energy Corporation, hired Blair around the same time its Iraqi consortium struck a controversial oil deal with the autonomous Kurdish government. Blair denies his dealings with the company were linked to Iraq. His dealings with UI Energy were kept under wraps for twenty months after Blair convinced a British government committee it should be kept secret due to “market sensitivities.”
A Guatemalan court has approved an order to extradite former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo to the United States on money-laundering charges. A federal grand jury has indicted Portillo for allegedly using US banks to embezzle millions of dollars taken from Guatemalan coffers. Portillo, however, says he’s the target of a political witch hunt dating back to his opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Alfonso Portillo: “I’m glad to tell Guatemalans I’m being chased for political reasons, for not following US policies in Latin America. I was the only Central American president who didn’t sign the letter supporting the US war and invasion in Iraq, and my argument was that my country had already been invaded in the past and signing a letter to support another country’s invasion was against my principles. I remember the ambassador and counselor’s words at that time: 'revenge will come in the future.' And the extradition request is the instrument of revenge.”
Portillo’s lawyers are appealing the extradition order.
Back in the United States, activists opposed to mountaintop removal coal mining held a protest Thursday outside the Washington offices of the Environmental Protection Agency. Six protesters chained themselves to twenty-foot-tall tripods beneath a banner reading ”EPA: pledge to end mountaintop removal in 2010.” The protesters are calling on EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to pledge to survey firsthand the environmental damage caused by mountaintop mining in the Appalachian Valley.
The EPA meanwhile has announced it will conduct a national study on how the natural gas drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing is affecting the nation’s water supplies. The $1.9 million study will be carried out over two years. The study comes amidst a push by natural gas companies to expand fracking, including a proposal to drill inside the Marcellus Shale watershed, which supplies drinking water to millions of people in New York and other Northeast states.
In Montana, a federal judge has approved a landmark settlement to suspend oil and gas leases pending an environmental assessment. Under the deal, the Bureau of Land Management will suspend sixty-one leases on over 38,000 acres within ninety days. The oil field operations will then have to pass a series of environmental reviews before they can be resumed.
Two people were arrested outside the White House on Thursday in a protest against the military’s ban on openly gay servicemembers. The two handcuffed themselves to a portion of the White House fence after leading a rally calling for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” One of the arrested was Lieutenant Dan Choi, an openly gay servicemember who’s faced discharge since publicly defying “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” one year ago.
And Arizona has become the first state to eliminate its Children’s Health Insurance Program, leaving tens of thousands without coverage. On Thursday, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed a new budget canceling the program, which covered around 47,000 low-income children. The move will coincide with cuts to Medicaid coverage for childless adults, dropping an additional 310,000 people from the rolls.