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The head of General Motors appeared before Congress on Tuesday to answer for the auto giant’s safety defect linked to at least 13 and possibly hundreds of deaths. GM has recalled millions of cars after acknowledging faulty ignition switches shut down engines and disabled air bags. Speaking before a House panel, Mary Barra apologized to the victims’ families.
Mary Barra: “More than a decade ago, GM embarked on a small car program. Sitting here today, I cannot tell you why it took so long for a safety defect to be announced for this program, but I can tell you we will find out. Today’s GM will do the right thing. That begins with my sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected by this recall, especially the families and friends who lost their lives or were injured. I am deeply sorry.”
It has recently emerged GM misled the victims’ families, despite knowing of the vehicles’ flaws. In her testimony, Barra said for the first time GM is ready to pay compensation and has hired an attorney to handle claims. The lawyer, Kenneth Feinberg, previously oversaw the compensation funds for 9/11 victims and for Gulf residents impacted by the BP oil spill. But despite admitting fault, Barra had almost no new information to explain how GM repeatedly failed to fix its cars despite knowing of the defective ignitions. Her testimony continues before the Senate today. Outside of the hearing, family members who lost loved ones to crashes in defective GM cars spoke out against the company’s actions.
Laura Christian: “We are the people left behind when a loved one got into what was supposed to be a safe car, a GM car, a car that GM knew for years was dangerous and defective. Our daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, wives and husbands are gone because they were a cost of doing business GM’s style.”
Ken Rimer: “Four years prior to producing the Cobalt, GM engineers were aware of a problem with that ignition switch design, which could cause it to turn into the accessory position with just the weight of a keychain or a road bump. Rather than fixing the problem, they chose to keep producing the Cobalt with the ill-fated ignition switch and selling it to an unsuspecting public. Would fixing the problem when it was discovered save these two girls’ lives and the lives of many others? Yes. Should GM be able to hide behind their bankruptcy and not accept the responsibility and liability of these young lives? No.”
The scandal has also brought scrutiny on federal regulators, who took no action despite knowing of problems as early as 2007. Testifying on Tuesday, David Friedman, the nation’s auto safety official, told lawmakers he has ordered an internal review.
President Obama is celebrating the milestone achievement of his signature healthcare law after enrollment in insurance plans beat expectations. Speaking at the White House, Obama said more than 7.1 million people signed up for insurance before this week’s deadline for open enrollment. And after years of Republican-led repeal efforts and a disastrous rollout last year, Obama said the law is here to stay.
President Obama: “Last night, the first open-enrollment period under this law came to an end. And despite several lost weeks out of the gate because of problems with the website, 7.1 million Americans have now signed up for private insurance plans through these marketplaces — 7.1. … I will always work with anyone who is willing to make this law work even better. But the debate over repealing this law is over. The Affordable Care Act is here to stay.”
The Obamacare program marks the nation’s largest expansion of health coverage since the creation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. But it still leaves millions uninsured while keeping the for-profit insurance industry intact. In his comments, Obama acknowledged the law has not fixed the nation’s healthcare woes, but criticized those trying to undermine its gains.
President Obama: “So, no, the Affordable Care Act hasn’t completely fixed our long-broken healthcare system, but this law has made our healthcare system a lot better. A lot better. … I’ve got to admit, I don’t get it: Why are folks working so hard for people not to have health insurance? Why are they so mad about the idea of folks having health insurance? Many of the tall tales that have been told about this law have been debunked. There are still no death panels. Armageddon has not arrived. Instead, this law is helping millions of Americans.”
The Obama administration has confirmed the National Security Agency has used a secret “backdoor” allowing it to search for the emails and phone calls of U.S. citizens without a warrant. Citing documents leaked by Edward Snowden, The Guardian revealed last year an undisclosed rule change that allows NSA operatives to hunt for individual Americans’ communications using their names or other identifying information. In a new letter to Senator Ron Wyden obtained by The Guardian, the nation’s top intelligence official, James Clapper, confirms the “backdoor” loophole’s use. Clapper does not specify how many backdoor searches have been carried out. In a statement, Wyden called the warrantless searches “unacceptable” and “a real threat to the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans.”
NATO has suspended all practical cooperation with Russia in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced the move at a meeting in Brussels.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen: “We are suspending all practical cooperation with Russia, military and civilian, in the NATO-Russia Council, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the Partnership for Peace. At the same time, we keep our diplomatic lines of communication open, and we are ready for ambassadorial or ministerial meetings in the NATO-Russia Council.”
Russia this week began withdrawing a small number of forces from its eastern border with Ukraine, a move Secretary of State John Kerry called a “welcome gesture.”
In an effort to convince Israel to follow through on its pledge to free the Palestinian prisoners, the Obama administration is reportedly considering an early release for the jailed spy Jonathan Pollard. Pollard is a former U.S. intelligence officer convicted of passing U.S. secrets on to Israel. He is eligible for parole next year, but could be freed under a rumored agreement to salvage the peace talks. At the White House, Press Secretary Jay Carney said no decision has been reached.
Press Secretary Jay Carney: “First of all, the president has not made a decision to release Jonathan Pollard. Jonathan Pollard was convicted of espionage, and he is serving his sentence. As I said yesterday, I don’t have any other update to provide to you on Mr. Pollard’s status. There are obviously a lot of things happening in that arena, and, you know, I’m not going to get ahead of discussions that are underway.”
A London-based Syrian group has upped its estimate for the death toll of Syria’s three-year civil war to at least 150,000. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 150,000 is the minimum figure, with an actual toll likely approaching 220,000 deaths. The United Nations has stopped updating its most recent toll of 100,000 from July 2013, saying conditions on the ground are too violent to allow for an accurate count.
The Republican-controlled House has approved a measure that would effectively force government agencies to stop studying climate change. The measure calls on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and related bodies to focus on forecasting severe weather — but not explore one of its likely causes. The vote comes as the U.N.'s top climate panel issued a report this week calling on governments to prepare for global warming's worsening impact and to cut emissions in order to prevent it from getting worse.
The Tennessee Senate has approved a measure that would ban new mass transit projects across the state. The bill was introduced to undermine a proposed rapid bus system in Nashville called the Amp, but would apply statewide. According to the website Think Progress, the measure received critical backing from the billionaire Republican donors Charles and David Koch. The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity pushed lawmakers to vote for the bill and may have even sparked its introduction.
Chile has declared a state of emergency after a powerful earthquake triggered a tsunami off its northern coast. The death toll stands at five so far. Thousands of people have been evacuated from coastal areas.