President Obama has signed into law the landmark healthcare reform bill extending health coverage to over 32 million Americans while entrenching the for-profit system dominated by insurance companies. At a jovial White House ceremony before over 300 guests, Obama celebrated the enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
President Obama: “Today, after almost a century of trying, today, after over a year of debate, today, after all the votes have been tallied, health insurance reform becomes law in the United States of America.”
Joining Obama were members of Congress who helped pass the bill, as well as relatives of patients who’ve fought insurance companies for medical care. Obama paid tribute to his late mother, who took on her insurance company as she battled cancer.
President Obama: “Today, I’m signing this reform bill into law on behalf of my mother, who argued with insurance companies even as she battled cancer in her final days. And we have now just enshrined, as soon as I sign this bill, the core principle that everybody should have some basic security when it comes to their healthcare.”
Obama’s description of the bill’s enshrinement of the right to what he called “some basic security” on healthcare contrasts with his stance during his run for office, when he asserted that healthcare “should be a right for every American.” The ceremony was held as the Senate opened debate on a final set of revisions to the healthcare bill. A Senate vote could come as soon as Friday. Republicans, meanwhile, kept up their pledge to fight the bill. Within minutes of the signing ceremony, fourteen Republican state attorneys general filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the healthcare measure. The White House says it expects those suits to fail.
The Israeli government has approved yet another settlement expansion in occupied East Jerusalem, just as President Obama hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House. On Tuesday, Israeli officials said they’ve issued construction permits for building in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The Obama administration had asked Israel to cancel the project when it was unveiled last year. The announcement came hours before Netanyahu and Obama held their first meeting since Israel declared it would build 1,600 new homes in an East Jerusalem settlement earlier this month. In a rare move, news coverage was barred of the White House meeting, and neither side made public statements.
Earlier in the day, Netanyahu met with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader John Boehner, who each pledged unwavering bipartisan support for the Israeli government. Pelosi said there is zero difference between the two main US political parties when it comes to backing Israeli policies.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “We in Congress stand by Israel, something we have a joint bipartisan commitment. No separation between us on this subject. In Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel. Together we remain committed to advancing the peace process, preserving Israel’s security, responsible sanctions against Iran, working to finalize Iran sanctions bill right now.”
As Netanyahu was welcomed on Capitol Hill, the British government announced it would expel an Israeli diplomat over the use of a forged British passport in the January assassination of a Hamas commander in Dubai. The team of suspects included six holding fake British passports bearing the names of Israeli citizens. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced the expulsion before the British Parliament.
UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband: “We have concluded that there are compelling reasons to believe that Israel was responsible for the misuse of the British passports. The government takes this matter extremely seriously. Such misuse of British passports is intolerable. It presents a hazard for the safety of British nationals in the region. It also represents a profound disregard for the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.”
Back in Washington, hundreds of students rallied on Capitol Hill Tuesday in support of a pending congressional measure to overhaul student loans. The Senate is gearing up to vote on whether to end the role of private banks in federally backed student loans and make the government the primary lender. Tens of billions of dollars in savings from the measure would be diverted into education grants. The House approved the overhaul as part of the healthcare package now before the Senate. Private lenders have launched an intensified lobbying effort to defeat the measure and send it back to the House. In other education news, student protesters have also converged in Washington this week to call for passage of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. The DREAM Act would grant permanent citizenship to undocumented workers’ children if they completed two years of college, trade school or military service. United States Student Association President Gregory Cendana said the measure would further the cause of making education a fundamental right.
Gregory Cendana: “This legislation, which USSA has fought for since its inception in 2001, would bring the United States one step closer to making education a fundamental right in this country by throwing open the college doors to undocumented students.”
A student group in Florida recently began a 1,500-mile walk to Washington in an effort to raise awareness about the DREAM Act.
In other news from Washington, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has unveiled a draft measure outlining a new framework for the treatment of foreign terror suspects. Graham’s bill would authorize continued imprisonment without charge and establish a national security court to try the prisoners’ cases. In a partial endorsement, the White House has begun circulating the measure on Capitol Hill despite objecting to certain provisions. The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the proposal, saying, “If Senator Graham’s legislation is introduced, Congress must stand strong and uphold our most cherished values, not cement into law policies that rival the worst of the Bush administration’s legacy.” The US meanwhile has released three Guantánamo Bay prisoners to the country of Georgia. Their identities have not been released.
A federal court has lifted a key set of government rules aimed at curbing media consolidation in the United States. On Tuesday, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit struck down the Federal Communications Commission’s ban on companies from owning both a newspaper and a television or radio station in the same market. The media reform group Free Press urged the FCC to respond to the ruling, saying, “Evidence suggests that merging newspaper and broadcast newsrooms hurts jobs and journalism. We hope the FCC will take decisive action to protect media diversity and to encourage competition in local news.”
The Obama administration has unveiled new curbs on executive compensation at some of the nation’s top bailed-out firms. On Tuesday, bailout pay czar Kenneth Feinberg reduced salaries and bonuses an average 15 percent for executives at five companies that have yet to repay their loans. Despite the cuts, many executives will still collect lucrative pay checks. At AIG, ten employees will take home at least $5 million apiece. Meanwhile, in Connecticut, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has issued a legal opinion backing taxes on bonuses at bailed-out firms. On Tuesday, Blumenthal said a proposal to tax bonuses over $1 million is constitutional and would likely withstand a court challenge.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Mexico on Tuesday in a display of support for the Mexican government’s military campaign against drug cartels. Clinton acknowledged US demand helps fuel Mexico’s drug trade and vowed continued backing of the Mexican government.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “The narcotics cartels are waging war on civil society. This violence shreds communities, it holds back economic development, and it undermines progress. So yes, we accept our share of the responsibility. As I said when I first came here a year ago, I think standing right here on this stage, the United States is your partner and your supporter.”
Clinton says the Obama administration is preparing to unveil a new drug policy that will include strategies for reducing US drug demand. A new $331 million plan will also increase funding for Mexican community programs. But the Obama administration has also vowed to continue military cooperation with Mexico despite an increase in human rights abuses. To underscore the US military commitment, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, accompanied Clinton’s delegation. The State Department has meanwhile announced plans to open a joint US-Mexico command center in Mexico City.
In India, a government panel has recommended a $47 million fine against the Indian subsidiary of the soft-drink giant Coca-Cola for environmental damage. The panel found a Coca-Cola bottling plant polluted the water and soil around the village of Plachimada by discharging toxins including cadmium and lead. The plant was shut down in 2004 after local residents successfully won a campaign for its closure. Coca-Cola has denied responsibility for the environmental damage and says it rejects the panel’s recommendation.
Back in the United States, the Pentagon has announced a review of the military’s information operations programs following the disclosure private contractors ran a spy program in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Earlier this month, the New York Times revealed senior Pentagon official Michael Furlong established an off-the-books spy operation with the help of private contractors to help track and kill suspected militants. The program was shut down last year. The Pentagon says it’s probing whether there are any “systemic problems” within its $500 million information operations programs.
The American Civil Liberties Union is calling on the Los Angeles Police Department to review its policies following the fatal shooting of an unarmed autistic man. The victim, Steven Eugene Washington, was shot late Saturday night. The officers say they thought Washington was pulling out a weapon from his waistband area, but he turned out to be unarmed.
A federal judge has ruled a lesbian Mississippi high school student’s constitutional rights were violated when she was barred from bringing her girlfriend to her prom. Constance McMillen, an eighteen-year-old senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School, has challenged a school policy preventing her from bringing her girlfriend as her date and also wearing a tuxedo. The school ended up canceling the prom rather than face the possibility that McMillen would prevail. The court’s decision won’t come in time to revive the canceled prom, but it means the case will go to trial. A group of parents at McMillen’s school have organized a private prom but have also barred her attendance.
In media news, independent journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill has been named the recipient of the second annual Izzy Award for Special Achievement in Independent Media. The Izzy Award is named after legendary maverick journalist I.F. Stone, who launched I.F. Stone Weekly in 1953 and exposed government deception, McCarthyism and racial bigotry. In announcing the award, the Park Center for Independent Media (PCIM) at Ithaca College cited Jeremy for “persistence, independence and journalistic courage in exposing military contractor abuses and human rights abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
And today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of the Salvadoran Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Known as the “voice of the voiceless,” Romero was a prominent advocate for the poor and a leading critic of the US-backed Salvadoran military government. He was killed while delivering mass at a hospital chapel, reportedly on the orders of the US-backed death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson. Earlier this month, Romero was one of the historical figures deleted from Texas’s social studies curriculum as part of the sweeping changes approved by the state’s Republican-dominated board of education. The board voted to omit Romero from history lessons after deeming him to be “insignificant.” This year marks the first time the El Salvador government is commemorating Romero’s murder. President Mauricio Funes is expected to issue a formal apology today on behalf of the Salvadoran government.