Congress has approved a package of final changes to the landmark healthcare overhaul. The House of Representatives put the finishing touches on the bill last night after the Senate approved the package on a 56-43 vote. At a rally in Iowa, President Obama dared Republicans to try to repeal the new law. Obama’s speech in Iowa was interrupted when a member of the audience yelled out, “What about the public option?”
President Obama: “That’s the basic aspects of reform.”
Audience Member: “What about the public option?”
President Obama: “That’s not in it.”
Audience Member: “Why not?”
President Obama: “Because we couldn’t get it through Congress, that’s why. So they — but let’s — there’s no need to shout, young man. No need to shout. Thirty-two people — 32 million people are going to have health insurance because of this legislation. That’s what this work is about.”
In the Senate, independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont joined Democrats in voting for the bill. After reiterating his support of a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system, Sanders praised the healthcare reform legislation, saying it would revolutionize primary healthcare in America.
Sen. Bernie Sanders: “This legislation provides enough funding so that we are going to create over the next five years 8,000 new health center sites, more than doubling the number that now exists. We are going to increase access for primary healthcare, dental care, mental health counseling, and low-cost prescription drugs to an additional 20 million Americans in every state, in every region of this country. That is a huge step forward in providing basic healthcare to millions of Americans who today cannot access that care.”
The healthcare reform was passed after one of the most intense lobbying campaigns ever seen on Capitol Hill. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, over 1,700 corporations and organizations reported lobbying on the legislation last year.
Lawmakers are continuing to receive threats in the wake of the healthcare vote. New York Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner was forced to close an office in Queens Thursday after his staff received a threatening letter with a suspicious white powder. The letter directly referred to Weiner’s support for healthcare reform. At least ten House Democrats have reported death threats or incidents of harassment since last week. On Sunday, Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa addressed a group of Tea Partiers and urged opponents of healthcare reform to beat the other side to a pulp.
Rep. Steve King: “If I could start a country with a bunch of people, they’d be the folks that have been here standing with us the last few days. Let’s hope we don’t have to do that. Let’s beat that other side to a pulp! Let’s chase them out. Let’s chase them down. There’s going to be a reckoning!”
On Thursday, Eric Cantor, the second-ranking Republican in the House, accused Democratic Party leaders of “fanning the flames.”
Rep. Eric Cantor: “It is reckless to use these incidents as media vehicles for political gain. That is why I have deep concerns that some, DCCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen and DNC Chairman Tim Kaine, in particular, are dangerously fanning the flames by suggesting that these incidents be used as a political weapon.”
In other fallout from the healthcare vote, David Frum, a former speech writer for George W. Bush, has been fired from the conservative American Enterprise Institute. His dismissal came just days after he said the passage of the healthcare bill amounted to the Republicans’ “Waterloo” moment and that it was the “most crushing legislative defeat since the 1960s.” Frum is best known for penning President Bush’s “axis of evil” remarks in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, but in recent months he has been publicly attacked by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin.
As part of the healthcare package, lawmakers have approved an overhaul of the college student loan program, ending federal subsidies to private lenders. The measure ends the forty-five-year-old Federal Family Education Loan Program, which has supported private student lending with federal subsidies. The projected $61 billion in savings over ten years would be used to provide federal grants to needy students and help fund other federal education programs, such as support for community colleges and historically black schools.
For the second time in a month, a Republican lawmaker has singlehandedly blocked a vote on a stopgap jobless benefits bill. With Congress in recess for two weeks, this could mean that on April 5 a host of popular provisions could expire, including unemployment insurance and COBRA benefits for the jobless. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn blocked the measure last night. Republican Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky blocked passage of a similar extension in February.
The Obama administration is expected to announce today broad new initiatives to help troubled homeowners, potentially refinancing several million of them into fresh government-backed mortgages with lower payments. Part of the plan will help the jobless and those “underwater” with mortgages bigger than their home’s value. Many details of the administration’s plan remain unclear.
The New York Times is reporting when the current Pope was a cardinal, he was kept more closely apprised of a sexual abuse case in Germany than previous Church statements have suggested. In 1980, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was copied on a memo that informed him that a priest would be returned to pastoral work within days of beginning psychiatric treatment to overcome pedophilia. The priest was later convicted of molesting boys in another parish. Meanwhile, in another sexual abuse case, the Vatican has strongly defended its decision not to defrock the Wisconsin-based priest Father Lawrence Murphy, who molested as many 200 deaf boys. Internal documents show Vatican officials, including the future Pope, knew of the allegations but were most concerned with protecting the Church’s image. On Thursday, Gigi Budzinski, said her father was one of the deaf boys who was molested by Father Murphy.
Gigi Budzinski: “He hopes they do something. I believe somebody should be punished for this. His innocence was stolen from him, his childhood. He was very depressed. He was not happy. He couldn’t enjoy his childhood. Everything was stolen from him. And now he’s sixty-one years old, and he’s still fighting for this.”
Indonesian human rights groups held a news conference today in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, calling on the Indonesian army to stop denying the exposé by journalist Allan Nairn that US-backed Indonesian armed forces assassinated a series of civilian activists in the province of Aceh last year. The human rights groups called on police to arrest those responsible for the assassinations and distributed Nairn’s piece to the press. The two human rights groups, Kontras and Imparsial, were founded by Munir, the country’s leading human rights advocate who was assassinated by Indonesian intelligence in 2004.
While much attention has been paid to the recent tension between the Obama White House and the Israeli government over settlements, the Pentagon and the Israeli military have just concluded another large arms deal. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports the US will give Israel three new Hercules-J transport aircraft, produced by Lockheed Martin, at a cost of $250 million. Israel is also negotiating a possible $3 billion deal to purchase Lockheed F-35 war planes.
Human Rights Watch has criticized the Venezuelan government for arresting two prominent anti-government critics. On Thursday, Guillermo Zuloaga, the president of the TV station Globovisión, was arrested and briefly detained. Zuloaga and his station have been vocal critics of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and openly supported the 2002 coup.
In climate news, the World Meteorological Organization has confirmed earlier reports that the last decade was the warmest on record. The organization also said 2009 was the fifth-hottest year on record. Meanwhile, in another sign of global warming, the ice has cleared on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. It is the earliest date for the lake to be ice-free since residents started keeping records over 120 years ago. So far this month, the temperature in Concord, New Hampshire is over seven degrees warmer than normal.
New York regulators have rejected a plan by the energy giant Entergy to spin off its nuclear power plants into a new company. Entergy runs five nuclear power plants, including Vermont Yankee, which is scheduled to be shut down. Critics said Entergy wanted to form the spinoff company to insulate Entergy from the high costs of cleaning up Vermont Yankee and other plants. John Stewart serves on the New York Public Service Commission.
John Stewart: “At this point, we’ve completed our review of the petitioners’ proposal. We’ve considered the comments. It’s our position that Enexus is not a financially viable entity in the long run under their proposal, and as such, the proposed transaction is not in the public interest. It’s our recommendation, therefore, the commission deny the proposal by petitioners.”
At the University of California, Berkeley, a campaign to divest from companies doing business with Israel has been dealt a setback. The president of the student government has vetoed the bill urging the school to divest from General Electric and United Technologies because of what they described as “their military support of the occupation of the Palestinian territories.” The veto was issued days after the student government voted 16 to 4 to approve a resolution calling on the school to divest from the companies.