The U.S. Congress opened its 113th session Thursday, swearing in a record number of women and people of color. New members include the only African American now serving in the U.S. Senate, Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is the first black Republican senator in more than 30 years. Congress now has a record number of women in both chambers: 81 in the House and 20 in the Senate.
The House narrowly re-elected John Boehner as House speaker despite criticism from party conservatives over his handling of the so-called fiscal cliff. The new Congress faces another looming showdown over the debt ceiling and possible spending cuts delayed under the “fiscal cliff” deal. Boehner addressed the debt Thursday in his opening speech.
John Boehner: “As speaker, I pledge to listen and to do all I can to help all of you carry out your oath of office that we are about — all about to take. Because in our hearts we know it’s wrong to pass this debt onto our kids and our grandkids, now we have to be willing, truly willing, to make this problem right.”
House Speaker Boehner faced a massive backlash this week after initially canceling a vote on relief for Superstorm Sandy. The House is expected to vote on the first round of aid today.
Gun control advocates introduced legislation on the first day of the new Congress to ban high-capacity ammunition magazines used in recent massacres, including the one at Sandy Hook Elementary last month. Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy of New York said in a statement: “These assault magazines help put the 'mass' in 'mass shooting' and anything we can do to stop their proliferation will save lives in America.” McCarthy, who lost her husband in a shooting on the Long Island Rail Road — her son was also severely injured — introduced the ammunition ban with fellow Democratic Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado. Gun control supporters are hoping an apparent shift in attitudes after 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, as well as the shooter’s mother who was killed first in her home, might pave the way for reform. In the latest potential sign of that shift, Republican Rep. Peter King of New York questioned ownership of assault weapons during an appearance on MSNBC.
Peter King: “I really don’t know why people need assault weapons. I’m not a hunter, but I understand people who want. I understand people who live in rough neighborhoods or have a small business and want to maintain a pistol to protect themselves, so long as they’re properly vetted and licensed. But an assault weapon? Listen, I’m sure 99 percent of people with assault weapons are good Americans. But to give that potential to a mass murderer who would be able to out-arm the police, who, as we saw, could carry out the worst devastation?”
In Yemen, a U.S. drone strike has killed three suspected al-Qaeda militants, including a local commander. Thursday’s attack occurred in an area devastated by a previous strike that killed 11 people, including three children. Last month the United States admitted for the first time it had carried out the September attack in Rada after the Yemeni government initially tried to claim credit. According to the Washington Post, militants in surrounding areas have gained more recruits for their fight against the U.S.-backed Yemeni government since that attack occurred.
In southern Iraq, a suicide bomber has killed at least 27 Shiites and wounded dozens of others at a bus station. Authorities say the bomber drove into the crowded station as pilgrims were returning from a religious event.
Venezuela has released new information on the medical status of President Hugo Chávez, raising concerns the leader’s health may be failing after a recent cancer surgery in Cuba. Ernesto Villegas, Venezuela’s minister of communication and information, made the remarks Thursday.
Ernesto Villegas: “After the delicate surgery of this past December 11, Comandante Chávez has faced complications as a result of a severe lung infection. This infection has caused a breathing insufficiency that requires Comandante Chávez to comply strictly with medical treatment.”
A Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by the Taliban has been released from a hospital in Britain. Malala Yousafzai is expected to return to the hospital in the coming weeks for reconstructive surgery to her skull. She was targeted by militants after campaigning for the rights of girls.
Google has won a major victory in the United States after dodging charges from the Federal Trade Commission over how it arranges search results. The FTC concluded a two-year investigation of Google saying the search giant had not violated antitrust or anti-competition statutes. The decision allows Google to continue elevating its own services in search results, raising concerns the company could exercise massive power over the Internet. Google performs 70 percent of all U.S. search queries.
U.S. immigration authorities say 245 people have been arrested as part of a weeks-long international investigation into child pornography. Scores of child victims were rescued from past or current exploitation, including 110 victims in the United States and 13 abroad. Many of the victims were living with their abusers.
The Obama administration has unveiled new rules allowing undocumented immigrants to avoid lengthy separations from U.S. family members while applying for legal status. Current U.S. policy forces immigrants who entered the country without authorization to return to their native countries for visas, then bars them from re-entering the United States for as long as a decade. Starting in March, family members who can demonstrate “extreme hardship” if separated from U.S. family members may be eligible for a waiver allowing them to re-enter the country more quickly. The new policy could potentially spare hundreds of thousands of families from being kept apart.
New scientific research has shed further doubt on claims about the environmental benefits of the natural gas drilling process known as fracking. Researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado say methane may be escaping from gas sites at much higher rates than previously thought. Data suggests as much as 9 percent of total methane produced may be leaking. Methane is many times more powerful than carbon at contributing to global warming.
In Texas, opponents of the Keystone XL oil pipeline have set up a new tree blockade in the path of the pipeline’s southern leg. Protesters say they have shielded two “dump platforms” with a series of lifelines that could potentially drop protesters from 50 or 60 feet in the air if disturbed. The blockade outside Diboll, Texas, follows the conclusion of a months-long blockade against the controversial pipeline near the Texas city of Winnsboro.
The Idle No More movement launched by First Nations in Canada is continuing to draw international support amid a hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence. Spence is on the 25th day of her strike in a teepee outside Ottawa’s parliament, where she has been demanding a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. On Thursday, Spence rejected a proposal by First Nations leaders to meet with Harper in a few weeks’ time, saying her failing health required action within 72 hours. Protests in Canada began over a controversial budget bill but have since expanded into a mass movement for political transformation, indigenous rights and environmental justice.
Hundreds of Bangladeshi garment workers, most of them women, have staged a massive hunger strike in the capital Dhaka to demand safer working conditions and better pay. A factory fire at a Bangladeshi plant that made goods for Wal-Mart killed at least 111 workers in November, marking the country’s worst industrial accident. The head of the National Garment Workers Federation, Amirul Haq Amin, condemned the retail giant.
Amirul Haq Amin: “It is already proved that for this devastating fire, the management and Wal-Mart, they are the responsible. In this fire, we actually lost 112 garment workers, who were our brothers and sisters. But unfortunately, ’til today, the management and Wal-Mart did not arrested by the government. So our demand is immediate arrest of the factory Wal-Mart, of Tazreen Fashion.”
The White House has released a statement attached by President Obama to the controversial National Defense Authorization Act that disputes the law’s restrictions on transferring prisoners out of Guantánamo. Obama signed the NDAA despite opposing the limits on prisoner transfers. In the statement, Obama claimed he has constitutional power to override those restrictions. Obama made a similar claim when he signed last year’s version of the bill but has still not delivered on promises to close Guantánamo.
The New York Times is criticizing a decision by Time Warner Cable to stop carrying Current TV after the channel was purchased by Al Jazeera. In an editorial, the paper called the move “unfortunate,” saying it could “block access to an important news source.” Time Warner dropped Current TV within hours of its purchase by Al Jazeera, saying in a statement: “We are removing the service as quickly as possible.” But the distributor appeared to change course Thursday following a wave of criticism, saying it would keep an “open mind” about possibly carrying Al Jazeera in the future. The New York Times reports Vice President Al Gore, who owned 20 percent of Current TV, made $100 million off the company’s $500 million sale.
A California appeals court has overturned the rape conviction of a man who impersonated a sleeping woman’s boyfriend, saying a 19th century law only protects married women from such attacks. Julio Morales had been sentenced to three years in prison after allegedly pretending to be a woman’s boyfriend and initiating sex with her while she slept. A judge ruled: “Has the man committed rape? Because of historical anomalies in the law and the statutory definition of rape, the answer is no, even though, if the woman had been married and the man had impersonated her husband, the answer would be yes.” The law in question dates back to 1872.
New data shows 2012 was another historic year for restrictions on reproductive rights. According to the Guttmacher Institute, U.S. states enacted the second highest number of anti-choice restrictions in history. Last year’s 43 abortion restrictions still marked a drop from the record 92 provisions enacted in 2011. In total, states enacted 122 provisions related to reproductive health and rights in 2012. Not a single one of those laws improved access to abortion, family planning or comprehensive sex education.
The pioneering feminist historian Gerda Lerner has died at the age of 92. Lerner published multiple books on women and feminism over a decades-long academic career. She is widely credited with having earned recognition for women’s history as a valid academic pursuit. In an interview with the author Elizabeth Debold, Lerner discussed her early days at Sarah Lawrence College, where she established the first women’s history graduate program in the early 1970s.
Gerda Lerner: “When I proposed to teach a course in women’s history, they said, 'Who needs it? We're a women’s college. Everything we do is women’s history.’ And I said, 'Not at all, because you're always telling it from the male point of view, from the male gaze at women.’ And the real story is that despite these hundreds of years of discrimination and oblivion, women persisted that they have a story. And we had to win every step of the way. We had to win the right to tell this. So, rule number one, nobody gave us anything.”
Lerner died Wednesday in Madison, Wisconsin.