Obama Unveils a $950B Restart on Health

President Obama took charge of the health care debate on the 399th day of his presidency Monday by proposing a 10-year, $950 billion plan opposed by Republicans and not yet endorsed by Democrats. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called it “a starting point” for bipartisan debate at a health care summit Obama will lead on Thursday. The proposal largely follows the Senate’s health care bill. Republicans in Congress denounced the plan, which is designed to reduce health care costs and expand coverage to 31 million people. “The well has been poisoned,” said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. “Mixing two bad bills together doesn’t make a good bill.” Congressional Democrats cautiously embraced President Barack Obama’s new health care plan as their last hope for enacting a comprehensive overhaul.

Whether or not Obama ultimately gets a health care bill through Congress, the effort could have practical and political consequences for years to come. Will Obama be able to break bread with Republicans and emerge with potential areas of compromise that lead to bipartisan action? Or will the two parties break knuckles instead and leave Washington as divided as ever?

Senate Jobs Bill Gets Past Filibuster

A bipartisan jobs bill cleared a GOP filibuster on Monday with critical momentum provided by the Senate’s newest Republican, Scott Brown of Massachusetts. The 62-30 tally to advance the measure to a final vote on Wednesday gives both President Obama and Capitol Hill Democrats a much-needed victory — even though the measure in question is likely to have only a modest boost on hiring. Brown and four other Republicans broke with GOP leaders to advance the measure. Most other Republicans opposed the bill because Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada stripped out provisions they had sought and wouldn’t allow them to try to restore them. Although employers seldom make hiring decisions based on tax breaks, the bill could potentially create 250,000 private-sector jobs.

Colorado Man Pleads Guilty in NYC Bomb Plot

A Colorado airport shuttle driver admitted Monday that he plotted with al-Qaeda to bomb New York City subways and other targets to avenge U.S. military action in Afghanistan. Najibullah Zazi, 25, of Aurora, Colo., pleaded guilty in federal court in Brooklyn to conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction, conspiring to commit murder in a foreign country and providing material support to a terrorist group. He will be sentenced in June and faces up to life in prison, although prosecutors could recommend a shorter sentence if he cooperates in the investigation. In his plea, Zazi admitted he brought the explosive Triacetone Triperoxide, known as TATP, to New York on Sept. 10, 2009, as part of a plan to attack the subway.

3 Google Execs Convicted in Italy of Privacy Violations

Three Google executives were convicted of privacy violations Wednesday in allowing a video of an autistic boy being abused to be posted online — a case that has been closely watched for its implications on Internet freedom. Judge Oscar Magi sentenced the three to a six-month suspended sentence and absolved them of defamation charges. The trial had been closely watched since it could help define whether the Internet in Italy is an open, self-regulating platform or if content must be better monitored for abusive material. Google, based in Mountain View, California, had said it considered the trial a threat to Internet freedom because it could force providers to attempt an impossible task — prescreening the thousands of hours of footage uploaded every day onto sites like YouTube. Thanks to the footage and Google’s cooperation, four bullies were identified and sentenced by a juvenile court to community service.

25 Million New Malware Strains in 2009

More than 25 million new strains of malware were created last year, according to researchers at PandaLabs. The number of new versions of malware identified far outstripped the 15 million that the company had previously identified over the course of its 20-year history. The reports says that two-thirds of the new malware consisted of banking Trojan horses. The report also reveals that 92% of all e-mail messages sent in 2009 were spam, and that social networking sites have become a new distribution channel for malware.

Toyota: Recall May Not Totally Fix Acceleration Problem

Toyota’s top U.S. executive told lawmakers on Tuesday that he is not certain the company has fixed its runaway car problems even though it has recalled millions of vehicles around the world. Although the automaker has blamed obstructing floor mats and sticky gas pedals for reports of cars accelerating out of control, lawmakers at a hearing on Capitol Hill appeared skeptical about the sometimes-conflicting accounts of what has gone wrong. Allegations of unintended acceleration by Toyota models that are not part of the recall and by cars from other automakers have revived debate over whether electromagnetic interference is the cause of such incidents. The theory is that electrical signals — from sources as diverse as cell phones, airport radar and even a car’s own systems — briefly and unpredictably wreak havoc with sensitive electronic controls in vehicles.

Planned Parenthood Caught for 10th Time

Planned Parenthood has been caught covering up child-sex abuse during an undercover sting – for the 10th time. Newly released video footage reveals staff members at a Milwaukee, Wis., Planned Parenthood abortion clinic counseling a woman who posed as a 14-year-old statutory rape victim not to tell anyone about her 31-year-old boyfriend. They also coached her on how to obtain an abortion without her parents’ knowledge or approval, according to student-led nonprofit Live Action, a group that filmed the incident. According to Wisconsin law, sex between an adult and a child younger than 16 years old is a felony, and health professionals are required to report cases of sexual abuse to authorities.

High Blood Pressure Neglected in U.S.

A critical new report declares high blood pressure in the U.S. to be a neglected disease — a term that usually describes mysterious tropical illnesses, not a well-known plague of rich countries. The prestigious Institute of Medicine said Monday that even though nearly one in three adults has hypertension, and it’s on the rise, fighting it apparently has fallen out of fashion: Doctors too often don’t treat it aggressively, and the government hasn’t made it enough of a priority, either. Yet high blood pressure, the nation’s second-leading cause of death, is relatively simple to prevent and treat, the institute said.

Most ‘Test Tube’ Kids are Healthy

More than 30 years after the world greeted its first “test-tube” baby with a mixture of awe, elation and concern, researchers say they are finding only a few medical differences between these children and kids conceived in the traditional way. More than 3 million children have been born worldwide as a result of what is called assisted reproductive technology, and injecting sperm into the egg outside the human body now accounts for about 4% of live births, researchers reported Sunday. The majority of assisted reproduction children are healthy and normal, according to researchers who have studied them. Some of these children do face an increased risk of birth defects and of low birth weight, which is associated with obesity, hypertension and Type 2 diabetes later in life.

Millennial Generation More Educated, Less Employed

The most detailed study to date of the 18- to 29-year-old Millennial generation finds this group probably will be the most educated in American history. But the 50 million Millennials also have the highest share who are unemployed or out of the workforce over the past four decades, according to the study, released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center. Overall, Pew says, Millennials are confident, upbeat and open to change. They’re more ethnically and racially diverse than their elders and also less religious. In 2008, 66% of Millennials voted for Barack Obama for president, compared with 50% of those 30 and older; 61% grew up in a two-parent household, a smaller percentage than the three previous generations. And just 21% are married (half the percentage of their parents’ generation at the same ages); 38% have a tattoo (and half of those with tattoos have two to five; 18% have six or more); 41% use only a cellphone and have no landline.

Youth Support for Obama/Dems Wanes

Whither the youth vote? A year after backing Barack Obama by an overwhelming 2-to-1 ratio, young adults are quickly cooling toward Democrats amid dissatisfaction over the lack of change in Washington and an escalating war in Afghanistan. A study by the Pew Research Center, being released Wednesday, spotlights the eroding support of people 18 to 29 years old whose strong turnout in November 2008 was touted by some demographers as the start of a new Democratic movement. While young adults remain decidedly more liberal, the survey found the Democratic advantage among people 18 to 29 years old has substantially narrowed – from a record 62 percent identifying as Democrat in 2008, down to 54 percent last December. Concurrent youth support for the GOP increased from 30% to 40%.

Nearly 20 Percent of U.S. Workers Underemployed

Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. workforce lacked adequate employment in January and struggled to make ends meet with reduced resources and bleak job prospects, according to a Gallup poll released on Tuesday. In findings that appear to paint a darker employment picture than official U.S. data, Gallup estimated that about 30 million Americans are underemployed, meaning either jobless or able to find only part-time work. The U.S. unemployment rate fell to 9.7 percent in January but remains near record highs.

Consumer Confidence Falls Sharply in February

Americans’ outlook on the economy went into relapse in February. Rising job worries sent a key barometer of confidence to its lowest point in 10 months, raising concerns about the economic recovery. The Conference Board said Tuesday that its consumer confidence index fell almost 11 points to 46 in February, down from a revised 56.5 in January. Analysts were expecting only a slight decrease to 55. It was the lowest level since the index recorded a 40.8 reading in April 2009. The increasing pessimism, which erased three months of improvement, is a big blow to hopes that consumer spending will power an economic recovery. The February reading is a long way from what’s considered healthy: A reading above 90 means the economy is on solid footing. Above 100 signals strong growth.

Economic News

Three dozen states will launch programs in March and April to distribute almost $300 million in rebates to consumers buying energy-efficient appliances. Eight states launched programs this month. The federally funded programs, similar to the cash-for-clunkers auto rebate program last year, are intended to improve energy efficiency and stimulate the economy. Rebates differ by state and appliance.

Congress enacted legislation last year that targets the credit card industry’s most controversial practices. Some of the most significant provisions became effective Monday. The new provisions prohibit credit card issuers from raising interest rates on existing balances, except under certain circumstances. Once you’re more than 60 days late on a monthly payment, your credit card issuer has the right to raise the interest rate on your outstanding balance.

Freddie Mac(FRE) lost $7.8 billion in the final three months last year, but the mortgage finance company didn’t need a federal cash infusion for the third quarter in a row. The results were a marked improvement over the fourth quarter 2008, when Freddie lost $23.9 billion. However, the company warned there is an increased likelihood that the company will require more cash from the Treasury Department.

Home prices rose in December for the seventh month in a row, but more foreclosures are expected to pull down prices later this year. Seasonally adjusted home prices in 20 major metro areas rose 0.3% in December compared with November. But compared with 2008, prices were still lower in 15 of the 20 cities. Las Vegas, down 20.6% in 2009, had the worst decline. San Francisco had the biggest increase in prices: 4.8%.

America’s banks eked out a small profit in the fourth quarter as the U.S. economy recovered, but the number of banks considered troubled jumped to more than 700, the government reported Tuesday.

In an era of populist outrage and nearly double-digit unemployment, the average Wall Street bonus jumped 25% in 2009 to $123,850 as financial firms rebounded from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression with help from U.S. taxpayers’ money.

Health care costs for large employers will rise more than 6% this year, a study says, and more companies are thinking about revamping their benefits. A total of 83% of companies surveyed say they have either revamped their health care strategy or expect to do so in the next two years. This can mean switching plan designs or increasing employee payments.

Retail gas prices likely bottomed out last week, and they’re again headed to above $3 a gallon this summer, experts said Monday. Retail gas prices rose Tuesday for the sixth straight day to a new national average of $2.66 a gallon, according to AAA. Higher crude oil price is the culprit.

Sears Holdings (SHLD) said Monday that it plans to shut 21 more stores around the country. The announcement brings to 56 the number of stores that the owner of Sears and Kmart has said over the past year that it will close.

California’s insurance regulator said Monday his office has found more than 700 violations by the state’s largest for-profit health insurer, including late payment of claims, giving misleading information to consumers and failing to cooperate with regulators.

Israel-PA Cooperation Averts West Bank Rocket Attack

Palestinian Authority security forces handed over information to the IDF on Monday on a Kassam rocket which had been made in the West Bank and was ready to be fired into central Israel. The rocket was made in a terrorist workshop in a West Bank village and was ready to be launched when PA forces discovered it. The IDF released a statement saying the thwarting of a rocket attack from Judea and Samaria was due to the successful cooperation between the Israeli army and Civil Administration and Palestinian security officials. The IDF also noted several other recent cases of close security cooperation, including the arrest of right-wing Jewish activists in a Jericho synagogue last evening, where close coordination between the two sides has avoided a violent confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis.


Police fired tear gas and clashed with demonstrators in Athens after some 50,000 people finished a peaceful march against cutbacks intended to fix the country’s debt crisis. The violence in Greece lasted about 30 minutes, when scores of youths hurled rocks, red paint and plastic bottles near parliament. Windows were smashed at the Finance Ministry’s General Accounting Office, which has been accused by the European Union of slipshod statistics-keeping that made the financial crisis worse. Labor unions organized the protest during a 24-hour general strike that grounded flights, shut schools and crippled public services, in a show of strength against the government.


Darfur‘s most powerful rebel group and the Sudanese government on Tuesday signed a truce after a year of internationally sponsored negotiations, raising hopes the bloody seven-year conflict could draw to a close. The international sponsors of the talks announced a $1 billion development fund for the war ravaged region. The next challenge for the mediators will be getting the dozens of other rebel splinter groups to join the process as the arduous power and wealth-sharing talks begin. Previous cease-fires and partial peace deals were short-lived.


The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan took his apology for a weekend airstrike that killed civilians directly to the Afghan people Tuesday, with a video in which he pledged to work to regain their trust. In the video, translated into the Afghan languages of Dari and Pashto on a NATO website, a stern Gen. Stanley McChrystal apologizes for the strike in central Uruzgan province that Afghan officials say killed at least 21 people. Sunday’s attack by NATO jets on a convoy of cars was the deadliest attack on civilians in six months and prompted a sharp rebuke from the Afghan government.

The Afghan human rights commission reported Wednesday that 28 civilians have been killed so far in NATO’s offensive on the Taliban stronghold of Marjah, and urged pro-government forces to take greater care in distinguishing between civilians and militants NATO did not report any significant fighting in Marjah on Tuesday.

The battle for Marjah, now in its 11th day, is the first major test for Afghanistan’s new army. Prior to Marjah, the Afghans have been dealing largely with skirmishes and protecting villages. In Marjah, the biggest Taliban stronghold in the country, the Afghan soldiers are out in greater numbers and are more closely partnered with allied forces than any previous operation, the Pentagon says. They appear willing to fight and are competent at basic infantry skills, according to U.S. military members who are watching.

The Pentagon said this week that ending the threat of the Taliban and its explosive devices might take a month or more.


Suspected U.S. missiles killed four people Wednesday in an al-Qaeda and Taliban stronghold in northwest Pakistan, intelligence officials said, amid signs of greater cooperation between Islamabad and Washington. The missile strikes have been one of several blows in recent weeks to militants on Pakistani soil. At least three Afghan Taliban commanders have been captured in recent weeks in Pakistan, including the No. 2 leader of the insurgents, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Those arrests were the result of intelligence breakthroughs, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, who oversees the war in Afghanistan, told reporters in Islamabad on Tuesday night.


Eight members of one Shiite family were killed south of Baghdad on Monday in the worst incident of a bloody day across Iraq that left at least 23 dead. The spate of attacks — and the fact that some of the family were beheaded — raised fears that insurgents are trying to re-ignite sectarian warfare at a time when the country is preparing for critical March elections. The March 7 election will determine who will oversee the country as the U.S. forces go home.


Iran has formally set out its terms for giving up most of its cache of enriched uranium in a confidential document, and the conditions fall short of what has been demanded by the United States and other world powers. The document says Tehran is ready to hand over the bulk of its stockpile in a simultaneous exchange for fuel rods for its research reactor. It says the exchange must be on Iranian territory. World powers want Iran to agree to ship out the material first and then wait up to a year for it to be turned into the reactor fuel. They insist on such terms because that would delay Iran’s ability to make a nuclear weapon by leaving it with too little enriched uranium to make a warhead.


The Pentagon has approved $150 million in military assistance to Yemen, the country where al-Qaeda linked militants planned the failed Christmas Day airliner attack over Detroit. Administration officials said the money is more than double the amount of aid the U.S. gave to Yemen last year. It will pay for military equipment and training for Yemeni forces.


Open Doors USA reports that authorities in Eritrea have released on bail 12 Christians who had spent the past two years in prison. The 12 Christians – seven men and five women – from the Kale-Hiwot Church were in high school at the time of their arrest. At their Feb. 5 release, the young adults were warned not to participate in any Christian activities. They were threatened with execution should they be caught disobeying the order. Officials at Mitire Military camp also released two members of the Rhema Church in Adi-Kuala, who were held at Mitire for the past one year and seven months for witnessing about Christ to fellow military soldiers. They were sent back to the military units where they served before their arrests. Sources inside Eritrea estimate that 2,221 Christians remain incarcerated in Eritrea’s harsh detention centers.


Christian Today reports that the need for Bibles in China grew again in 2009, when an estimated half million people converted to Christianity. “As more and more people are joining the Church they are asking for a Bible,” says Bible Society’s China Partnership Coordinator Kua Wee Seng. About 4 million Bibles were distributed across China last year, but continued growth means that more are needed. According to official numbers, about 28.6 million Christians live in China, but that figure could be as high as 90 million if unregistered house churches are included.


A rain-triggered landslide Tuesday at a tea plantation on Indonesia’s main island of Java killed at least five workers and buried 60 others. No heavy earth-moving equipment was available in the area, so villagers were digging through tons of dislodged mud with farm tools and their bare hands to search for survivors.

A winter storm that dumped 8 inches of snow on parts of southern lower Michigan has closed dozens of schools, caused numerous spinouts and left drivers to battle slippery, snarled roads. Heavy, wet snow began falling late Sunday night and intensified during Monday’s morning commute. Scores of flights were canceled Tuesday as the second winter storm in as many weeks coated parts of Texas in snow. Flurries even sprinkled cities as far south as Austin and San Antonio.

People may have dug out their cars from this month’s historic East Coast snowstorms, but businesses and governments will be digging out for a long time from the lost revenue and extra costs they incurred. Back-to-back snowstorms that pounded the East from Washington to New York City with up to 4 feet of snow in five days cost the nation about $15 billion.

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