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Thursday
Mar132008

Republicans Unveil Budget Plan That Includes Cuts To Medicare

Republicans have unveiled a fiscal year 2009 budget plan that includes cuts to Medicare and Medicaid in response to the Democrats' $3 trillion budget proposal (H. Con. Res. 312) that would increase funding for many domestic programs, the AP/Houston Chronicle reports. According to the AP/Chronicle, the "rival budget plans display the difficult trade-offs facing the next president, who must weigh tax cuts that expire at the end of 2010 with popular spending programs like education, highway construction and Medicare."

The Republicans' plan would retain income tax rate cuts proposed by President Bush and approved by Congress, as well as tax breaks for married couples, people with children, on investments and people inheriting large estates. The plan would be paid for through significant cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and other programs. The House and Senate are expected to vote on the budget resolution this week.

The budget resolution "sets the stage" for follow-up legislation on taxes and benefit programs such as Medicare and for the 12 appropriations bills, according to the AP/Chronicle. However, unless such legislation is passed, "the budget debate has little real effect and is mostly about making statements about party priorities," the AP/Chronicle reports.

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Thursday
Mar132008

Gun Battle at the White House?

In preparation for oral arguments Tuesday on the extent of gun rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment, the U.S. Supreme Court has before it a brief signed by Vice President Cheney opposing the Bush administration's stance. Even more remarkably, Cheney is faithfully reflecting the views of President Bush.

The government position filed with the Supreme Court by U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement stunned gun advocates by opposing the breadth of an appellate court's affirmation of individual ownership rights. The Justice Department, not the vice president, is out of order. But if Bush agrees with Cheney, why did the president not simply order Clement to revise his brief? The answers: disorganization and weakness in the eighth year of his presidency.

Consequently, a Republican administration finds itself aligned against the most popular tenet of social conservatism: gun rights, which enjoy much wider agreement than do opposition to abortion or gay marriage. Promises in two presidential campaigns are being abandoned, and Bush finds himself to the left of even Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.

The 1976 D.C. statute prohibiting ownership of all functional firearms was called unconstitutional a year ago in an opinion by Senior Judge Laurence Silberman, a conservative who has served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit for 22 years.

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Thursday
Mar132008

FDA Acknowledges Gaps in Food Safety

Since 2001, nearly half of all federal inspections of facilities that package fresh spinach revealed serious sanitary problems, but the Food and Drug Administration did not take "meaningful" enforcement action, a House committee report released yesterday found.

The most common problems uncovered by FDA inspections of 67 facilities included inadequate restroom sanitation, litter piles and indoor condensation posing a risk of food contamination by microorganisms. Inspectors also found buildings vulnerable to rodent infestation and workers with uncovered hair and poor hygiene.

Twenty serious outbreaks of E. coli have been traced to fresh lettuce or spinach since 1995. One of the most troublesome was a 2006 outbreak in bagged spinach processed by California-based Natural Selection Foods that sickened more than 200 people and was linked to three deaths.

The FDA acknowledged gaps in its food safety efforts after that episode. But the report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee says the problems were worse: It showed that spinach facilities were inspected about once every 2.4 years despite federal guidelines that say most should have been visited at least annually.

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Thursday
Mar132008

NRCC Treasurer Under Scrutiny

In the tiny world of people who keep the books for Washington's multitude of political committees, Christopher J. Ward was considered the Republican "gold standard," in the words of a former co-worker -- one of the few people with so much expertise in election law that everyone wanted Ward's services.

The quiet workaholic is listed as treasurer for 83 GOP fundraising committees over the past eight years, according to Federal Election Commission records. In the past five years alone, he oversaw the accounting for committees that raised more than $400 million, $368 million of it at the National Republican Congressional Committee, according to a Washington Post review of those records.

But in late January, Ward, 39, was dismissed as the NRCC announced that it had found financial "irregularities" that "may include fraud." The FBI is investigating what appears to be "a significant amount of money" missing from the House Republican fundraising arm, according to a law enforcement official.

Now the dozens of GOP lawmakers who had clamored for Ward's help are apprehensively poring over his work along with FBI investigators, trying to learn more about the finances he oversaw. Several lawmakers have told Rep. K. Michael Conaway (Tex.), head of the NRCC's auditing subcommittee, that they think money may be missing from their political committees, as well.

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Thursday
Mar132008

D.C. Police Initiate House to House Search for Guns!

The Metropolitan Police Department yesterday(3-12-08) announced a new crime initiative that will include officers going into high-crime neighborhoods to search homes for illegal guns.

"The premise is that residents can have the trust of the ...department," said police spokeswoman Traci Hughes.

Chief Cathy L. Lanier announced the program and said it focuses on parents or legal guardians who think their children have a gun in the house and are uncomfortable with searching for it themselves.

Miss Hughes said that residents would be given amnesty for illegal guns found in homes after they are tested for links to crimes. But she said police would investigate the source of the guns if they were found to be involved in a crime.

She said another primary intent of the initiative is to get guns away from young people, particularly those in small street gangs called crews, who get them for protection or to attack rivals.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the council's public safety committee, said the search program "could be touch-and-go" and its success will hinge on how officers execute the requests.

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Thursday
Mar132008

Israel and Gaza Trade Fire

Sixteen rockets were fired at Israel from Gaza on Thursday, and the Israeli Air Force carried out its first strike in Gaza for nearly a week, hitting a rocket launcher, the Israeli Army said.

The upsurge in violence follows the killing by Israeli undercover troops of four Palestinian militants in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Wednesday, which shattered a five-day lull in hostilities and threatens Egyptian efforts to mediate a cease-fire.

Two of the rockets fired into Israel fell in the border town of Sderot, hitting a shed in the yard of a house and a soccer field.

The Israeli air force strike hit a rocket launcher that was ready to fire a rocket in northern Gaza at 3 a.m., but nobody was wounded, according to an army spokeswoman. It was the first Israeli strike in Gaza since last Friday night.

Among the four Palestinian militants who were killed Wednesday were two men, both in their 40s, who had been wanted by the Israelis for years:

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Thursday
Mar132008

Bush Warns House on Surveillance

With the House poised to vote today on electronic surveillance legislation that the White House has said falls far short of its requirements, President Bush warned legislators strongly Thursday morning against passing what he called “a partisan bill that will undermine American security.”

In clear defiance of the White House, the proposal from House Democratic leaders would not give retroactive legal protection to the phone companies that helped in the National Security Agency program of warrantless wiretapping. Mr. Bush also threatened to veto any such measure, should it reach his desk.

The Senate last month passed a bill that did provide such protection and also broadened government eavesdropping powers.

Using tough language on a subject on which he has been persistent and unswerving, Mr. Bush warned House members that “they should not leave for Easter recess without getting the Senate bill to my desk.”

The Senate last month passed a bill that did provide such protection and also broadened government eavesdropping powers.

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Thursday
Mar132008

U.S. Home Foreclosures Rise 60% in February & Bank Repossessions Doubled

U.S. home foreclosure filings jumped 60 percent and bank repossessions more than doubled in February as rates on adjustable mortgages rose and property owners were unable to sell or refinance amid falling prices.

More than 223,000 properties were in some stage of default, or 1 in every 557 U.S. households, Irvine, California-based RealtyTrac Inc. said today in a statement. Nevada, California and Florida recorded the highest state foreclosure rates.

``We're in a vicious cycle,'' said Rick Sharga, executive vice president of RealtyTrac, a seller of foreclosure data. ``We've got depreciating home values and loans resetting at an outstanding volume just as banks are retrenching. Even people who want to buy a home now are having trouble getting a mortgage.''

About $460 billion of adjustable-rate mortgages are scheduled to reset this year and another $420 billion will rise in 2011, according to New York-based analysts at Citigroup Inc. Homeowners faced higher payments as fourth-quarter home prices fell 8.9 percent, the biggest drop in 20 years as measured by the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index.

Filings are likely to be ``explosive'' in May and June as more payments jump, after remaining at current levels this month and next, Sharga said in an interview. There may be between 750,000 and 1 million bank repossessions in 2008, he said. Bank seizures rose 110 percent in February from a year ago, he said.

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Thursday
Mar132008

Gold Rises to $1,000 For 1st Time on Demand for Haven From Weaker Dollar

Gold traded at $1,000 an ounce in New York and rose to a record in London on speculation credit- market turmoil will spur demand for the metal as a haven from declines in stocks and the dollar.

Silver, platinum and palladium also advanced as the dollar fell below 100 yen for the first time since 1995 and to a record low against the euro after a Carlyle Group fund moved closer to collapse. Gold climbed 19 percent this year as the dollar fell and world equity markets declined.

``The financial system's in trouble at the moment and people are going to the safety of gold,'' said Mario Innecco, a futures broker at MF Global Ltd. in London. ``You can't create gold so easily as you can create dollars or euros or pounds.''

April futures climbed $15.30, or 1.6 percent, to $995.80 an ounce on the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange after trading at $1,000 for the first time.

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Wednesday
Mar122008

House Judiciary Committee Slams Immunity and Calls for Deeper Investigation of Warrantless Surveillance

For weeks, the House has been deliberating on its response to the Senate's FISA Amendments Act, which aims to grant retroactive immunity for telecoms involved in warrantless wiretapping. While it's seemed like a possibility that the House was going to cave and agree to grant immunity, the tides have shifted in a big way in the last few days.

On 3-11-08, House leaders announced a bill that would not grant telecom immunity, and today(3-12-08), House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) and 19 Members of the House Judiciary Committee issued a strong statement dismantling flawed pro-immunity arguments and delivering concrete findings and recommendations on dealing with the secretive terrorist surveillance program and telecom immunity.

Phone or email your Representative today -- urge them to maintain opposition to retroactive immunity.


Wednesday
Mar122008

U.S. Slaps Sanctions on Bahrain's Future Bank for Iran Links

The United States on Wednesday imposed economic sanctions on Bahrain-based Future Bank, citing its role in supporting Iran's proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The US Treasury Department said it was taking the action against Future Bank BSC for being controlled by Iran's Bank Melli, which previously had been sanction by the Treasury for facilitating Iran's proliferation activities.

'Bank Melli goes to extraordinary lengths to assist Iran's pursuit of a nuclear capability and ballistic missiles, while also helping other designated entities to dodge sanctions,' Stuart Levey, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in a statement.

Levey said that banks and other entities owned or controlled by Bank Melli pose 'a serious threat' to the integrity of the international financial system.

Sanctions were imposed on Bank Melli on October 25, 2007.

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Wednesday
Mar122008

War Protesters Arrested in Senate

U.S. Capitol Police arrested 10 war protesters who began shouting in the Senate gallery Wednesday.

The protesters were quickly hustled into a hallway and out of the view of reporters. They had chanted, "The war is immoral! Stop funding the war!"—as police officers grabbed them and physically removed them from a visitors gallery overlooking the Senate floor.

The demonstrators wore gauze shrouds over their heads and black shirts that read, "We will not be silent." One member said they represented the "National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance."

Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas was speaking during debate on the federal budget when the protest broke out. She stopped talking while the protesters were removed.

Outside the chamber, police ordered reporters to leave the public hallway where authorities were detaining the protesters. An officer could be heard reporting that there had been 10 arrests in the incident.


Wednesday
Mar122008

Survey Finds: U.S. Recession has Already Started

Also see: U.S. Stocks Retreat on Recession Concern

A U.S. recession has already started and the downturn is likely to last longer than in the recent past, with the economy recovering only late next year, according to a quarterly survey of corporate finance chiefs released today.

Fifty-four percent of the CFOs said the United States is in recession, and another 24 percent said there is a high likelihood of one starting later this year, according to a Duke University/CFO Magazine survey completed on March 7.

Nearly three-quarters of the CFOs said they were more pessimistic this quarter than in the prior quarter about the U.S. economy, reflecting concerns about consumer spending, turmoil in credit and housing markets, and high energy prices.

An index of optimism, which rates the economy on a 1 to 100 scale, is at 52, the lowest in the seven-year history of the index, the survey found.

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Wednesday
Mar122008

U.S. Trainer: Afghan War Trend Worse Than Iraq

The tide of the war in Afghanistan is running against the United States and its allies, in contrast to an improving trend in Iraq, a U.S. military official and counter-insurgency expert said on Wednesday.

"Afghanistan (is) in my eyes an under-resourced war, a war that needs a whole lot more advisers, a whole lot more economic aid," Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl told a security conference in Stockholm.

"This war is the war I'm concerned about, a war in which the United States very much needs the help of our friends."

Nagl commands the 1st battalion of the 34th armored regiment at Fort Riley, Kansas, training U.S. transition teams that embed with Iraqi and Afghan security forces.

He was part of the writing team that produced the U.S. military's manual on counter-insurgency, which is credited with transforming its approach to both conflicts with a new emphasis on winning over local populations and marginalizing insurgents.

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Wednesday
Mar122008

UN Torture Envoy Says U.S. Denies Access to Iraq Jails

The U.N. investigator on torture said on Tuesday the United States had denied his request to visit U.S.-run jails in Iraq and insisted a visit could help clear its legacy of the prison abuse scandal in Abu Ghraib.

Manfred Nowak, United Nations special rapporteur on torture, said he had received credible information the situation had improved at U.S. detention facilities in recent years, but stressed only a visit would allow him to verify them.

An international outcry erupted in 2004 after images of prisoner abuse by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib west of Baghdad, including naked detainees stacked in a pyramid and others cowering before snarling dogs, became public.

"I was a little astonished that the U.S. government is not willing to grant me access because it might perhaps even be in their own interest if I compared different detention facilities," Nowak told a news briefing in Geneva.

"It might also be in their interest in overcoming the legacy of having been criticised so much for torture practices in Abu Ghraib and other detention facilities up to 2004," he added.

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Wednesday
Mar122008

Another New GAO Study Says Bush Follows Through on Signing-Statement Announcements of Intent to Violate Law

One of the most underexplored aspects of Bush's unprecedented use of signing statements has been the practical consequences.

A year ago, the Government Accountability Office found that, indeed, federal officials had not complied with at least some of the provisions that Bush objected to in signing statements.

In testimony to a House committee yesterday, GAO general counsel Gary L. Kepplinger announced the results of another study, this one of provisions in the 2008 defense authorization, which found more of the same. The GAO examined how 21 agencies executed 29 different provisions of the law that Bush asserted his right not to follow -- and found that in nine cases "the agencies had not executed the provisions as written."

As with the earlier study, the specific examples are less than compelling -- the investigation, for instance, avoided "a close examination of provisions involving national security, intelligence, or foreign relations matters, because of our limited access to such information and the time constraints on our work."

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