Health Summit Displays Divergent Views

Congressional leaders remain pessimistic that a marathon health care policy session with President Obama on Thursday will lead to compromise, which could prompt Democrats to forge ahead alone. After more than seven hours of occasionally acrimonious debate, Democrats and Republicans said they see little chance for bipartisan action. Republicans complained that Democrats showed no sign of retreating from Obama’s 10-year, roughly $950 billion version of bills that passed the House and Senate last year. All day, one Republican after another urged Obama to start over. Obama dominated the meeting at Blair House, the presidential guest residence across from the White House. He challenged Republicans to defend their step-by-step approach to health care or come around to Democrats’ comprehensive measure. Obama said the two sides should take up to six weeks to try and merge their philosophically divergent views about health coverage, costs and ways to overhaul the insurance market. If there’s still no agreement, he said, “that’s what elections are for.”

  • Just a lot more hot air and a photo-op for the President

House Sends Extension of Patriot Act to Obama

Major provisions of the nation’s primary counterterror law would be extended for a year under a bill passed Thursday by the House of Representatives after Democrats retreated from adding new privacy protections. The House voted 315 to 97 to extend the USA Patriot Act, sending the bill to President Obama. Without the bill, the provisions would have expired on Sunday. The Senate approved the extension Wednesday. The privacy protections were cast aside when Senate Democrats lacked the necessary 60-vote supermajority to pass them. Thrown away were restrictions and greater scrutiny on the government’s authority to spy on Americans and seize their records.

Mass Firings at R.I. School a Trend?

Tuesday’s move by Central Falls, R.I., Superintendent Frances Gallo to remove all 74 teachers, administrators and counselors at the district’s only high school may be the first tangible result of an aggressive push by the Obama administration to get tough on school accountability — and may signal a more fraught relationship between teachers unions and Democratic leaders. “This may be one school in one town, but it represents a much bigger phenomenon,” says Andy Smarick of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C., education think tank. “Thanks to years of work battling the achievement gap and the elevation of reform-minded education leaders, we may finally be getting serious about the nation’s lowest-performing schools.” President Obama was elected in 2008 with the support of teachers groups nationwide, but since then, he and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have taken up the cause of fixing the USA’s most struggling schools. Duncan will soon release a list of 5,000 identified as most in need of reform.

Next fall, at least half the teachers at Vaux and 13 more of Philadelphia‘s worst schools could be gone. And the school day, school week and school year could be longer. Even in a school system known for its academic troubles, the numbers at Vaux High School are jaw-dropping: More than 90% of 11th-graders tested last year could not read or do math at grade level.

  • Teacher accountability has been missing for years due to tenure and unions

Government Panel Says Everyone Should Get Flu Shot Every Year

A government panel is now recommending that virtually all Americans get a flu shot each year, starting this fall. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices had gradually been expanding its recommendation for flu shots — 85% of Americans were already included. On Wednesday, the panel voted to recommend a seasonal flu vaccination for everyone except babies younger than 6 months and those with egg allergies or other unusual conditions. But only about 33% of Americans actually get a flu shot, and unusually millions and millions of doses get thrown away annually. The swine flu ‘pandemic’ that hit last year caused a new momentum for flu vaccinations.

  • One has to wonder why the government has pushed vaccinations so hard. Pharmaceutical influence and greed? Or something more sinister?

Fearing Obama Agenda, States Push to Loosen Gun Laws

When President Obama took office, gun rights advocates sounded the alarm, warning that he intended to strip them of their arms and ammunition. And yet the opposite is happening. Mr. Obama has been largely silent on the issue while states are engaged in a new and largely successful push for expanded gun rights, even passing measures that have been rejected in the past. In Virginia, the General Assembly approved a bill last week that allows people to carry concealed weapons in bars and restaurants that serve alcohol, and the House of Delegates voted to repeal a 17-year-old ban on buying more than one handgun a month. Arizona and Wyoming lawmakers are considering nearly a half dozen pro-gun measures, including one that would allow residents to carry concealed weapons without a permit. And lawmakers in Montana and Tennessee passed measures last year — the first of their kind — to exempt their states from federal regulation of firearms and ammunition that are made, sold and used in state. Similar bills have been proposed in at least three other states.

In the meantime, gun control advocates say, Mr. Obama has failed to deliver on campaign promises to close a loophole that allows unlicensed dealers at gun shows to sell firearms without background checks; to revive the assault weapons ban; and to push states to release data about guns used in crimes.

High-Fat Diet Raises Stroke Risk in Women

Eating a lot of fat, especially the kind that’s in cookies and pastries, can significantly raise the risk of stroke for women over 50, a large new study finds. The new study is the largest to look at stroke risk in women and across all types of fat. It showed a clear trend: Those who ate the most fat had a 44% higher risk of the most common type of stroke compared to those who ate the least. Before menopause, women traditionally have had less risk of stroke than similarly aged men, although this is changing as women increasingly battle obesity and other health problems. After menopause, the risk rises and the gender advantage disappears.

Projects Across USA Turn Landfill Gas into Energy

More communities are turning trash into power. Nationwide, the number of landfill gas projects, which convert methane gas emitted from decomposing garbage into power, jumped from 399 in 2005 to 519 last year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. As garbage decomposes, it creates gas that is half methane. Instead of letting the gas escape into the air, these projects collect the gas and treat it so it can be used for electricity or upgraded to pipeline-grade gas. The projects power homes, buildings and vehicles. Landfill gas provides constant power and doesn’t “require the sun to shine or the wind to blow,” says Wes Muir, of Waste Management, a Houston-based company that runs 115 of these projects and plans to have 160 to 170 by 2013.

Migrants Trick E-Verify

Two years after Arizona began requiring all employers to use a federal online program to ensure a legal workforce, a new study indicates that illegal workers are slipping through the system more than half of the time by using stolen identities. Fifty-four percent of the illegal workers whose names were run through the program nationwide were wrongly found to be authorized to work by the system known as E-Verify. The system’s high inaccuracy rate for illegal workers using stolen identities has greatly alarmed business groups in Arizona. The state’s 2008 employer-sanctions law mandates that employers use E-Verify and gives authorities the power to close down businesses found to be knowingly hiring illegal workers. “Arizona employers are relying when they sign up for E-Verify that this is an accurate program,” said Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “If the system is busted, it’s obviously unfair to punish employers.”

  • Yet another government boondoggle

Senate Approves Tax Breaks for New Hires

Companies that hire unemployed people would claim new tax breaks under a jobs-promoting bill the Senate passed Wednesday, delivering President Obama and Democrats a much-needed victory. The 70-28 vote sends the bill back to the House, which passed a far more costly measure in December. Many in the House consider the Senate bill too puny, but they may simply adopt it and send it to Obama in order to get a win. Democratic leaders promise more so-called jobs bills are on the way. The bill contain two major provisions. First, it would exempt businesses hiring the unemployed from the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax through December and give them an additional $1,000 credit if new workers stay on the job a full year. Second, it would extend highway and mass transit programs through the end of the year and pump $20 billion into them in time for the spring construction season.

Construction Unemployment Continues to Rise

While most of the job market continued to rebound in January, the construction industry remained mired in its worst downturn since the Great Depression. It lost 75,000 jobs last month, almost single-handedly preventing U.S. employment from showing its second gain in two years. Employers overall shed 20,000 jobs. As the jobless rate hovers around 10%, unemployment in construction jumped to 24.7%, highest on record since 1976. Construction has accounted for nearly a quarter of all job losses the past year, though the industry employs 4.3% of non-farm employees. Even manufacturing added 11,000 jobs in January, its first net increase since the recession began in December 2007. Thousands of contractors are going bankrupt or shutting down. And many workers are shifting to new careers, such as truck driving or airplane repair.

FDIC Hits Record “Default” Level As Deposit Insurance Fund Plunges

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said Tuesday that its deposit-insurance fund fell to $20.9 billion at the end of 2009, a $12.6 billion drop in the final three months of the year, as bank failures continued at a pace not seen since the savings and loan crisis. The fund’s reserve ratio was -0.39% at the end of the quarter, the lowest on record. The FDIC also said loan losses for U.S. banks climbed for the 12th straight quarter, while the total loan balances for U.S. banks continued to fall. The agency said the quarterly net charge-off rate and the total number of loans at least three months past due both were at the highest level ever recorded in the 26 years the data have been collected. Net charge-offs of troubled loans occurred across all major loan categories, led by a $3.3 billion increase in residential mortgage loans.  

Economic News

Sales of new homes plunged to a record low in January, underscoring the formidable challenges facing the housing industry as it tries to recover from the worst slump in decades. The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that new home sales dropped 11.2% last month from December, to a seasonally adjusted annual sales pace of 309,000 units, lowest level on records going back nearly a half century.

Sales of previously occupied homes also took a large drop for the second straight month in January, falling to the lowest level since summer. It was another sign the housing market’s recovery is faltering. The National Association of Realtors says sales fell 7.2% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.05 million.

The government said orders to factories for big-ticket manufactured goods shot up in January by the largest amount in six months, but the strength came from a surge in demand for commercial aircraft. Orders for durable manufactured goods jumped 3% in January, the biggest increase since a 5.8% increase last July. However, excluding transportation, durable goods orders fell by 0.6%, a weaker showing than economists had expected. Demand for autos, machinery and a host of other products fell last month.

New claims for unemployment benefits rose unexpectedly in the latest week, showing continued weakness in the economy.. The department says first-time claims for unemployment insurance rose 22,000 to a seasonally adjusted 496,000. The four-week average, which smooths volatility, rose 6,000 to 473,750. Continuing claims were essentially unchanged at 4.6 million.

General Motors has ended talks with a Chinese buyer for Hummer and will start “a wind-down of the brand” if another suitor doesn’t appear.

Greece

European Union officials are pressing Greece for additional austerity measures after an emergency inspection of its ailing finances amid global worries that Greece’s problems might worsen a weak world economy. A team of officials from the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund wrapped up a three-day visit Thursday. Athens faces a March 16 deadline from the EU to show signs of fiscal improvement or take further action to boost revenues and cut spending. Greece’s woes have affected the euro exchange rate and raised fears of contagion to other weak EU economies, such as Portugal and Spain. Facing intense pressure from EU partners and market speculation, which has sent Greek borrowing costs rocketing, the 4-month-old government has frozen civil service salaries and hirings, cut bonuses and raised retirement ages and consumer taxes.

India

India began to rollback tax cuts Friday as the government’s new budget pledged to trim the swollen fiscal deficit while maintaining spending on social programs and infrastructure. Presenting the budget for the fiscal year ending March 2011 to a belligerent Parliament, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee said India’s fiscal deficit is now a revised 6.7% of gross domestic product. As expected, he also hiked excise taxes by an average of 2 percentage points. The government had cut those taxes by 6 percentage points in the wake of the financial crisis to stimulate spending. His pledge to reinstate duties on petroleum products and raise excise taxes on petroleum and diesel by 1 rupee a liter brought angry parliamentarians to their feet, shouting and raising their arms in protest.

Pakistan

Nearly 15 senior and midlevel Taliban figures have been detained in Pakistan in recent weeks, including the group’s top commander in eastern Afghanistan whose arrest was confirmed Thursday by the Afghan government. Some of the Taliban were picked up after they fled Afghanistan ahead of a major military assault underway in southern Afghanistan. The officials said Pakistan had shared its investigations with the CIA, which provided key information to Pakistan’s intelligence service about the hide-outs of Taliban leaders. The senior and midlevel Afghan Taliban members were arrested in Pakistan after the detention of the Taliban’s No. 2 leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Information gleaned from Baradar led to the arrests of two Taliban shadow governors — Mullah Abdul Salam of Kunduz province and Mullah Mohammad of Baghlan — and the arrest of Akhunzada Popalzai, also known as Mohammad Younis, a one-time Taliban shadow governor in Zabul province and former police chief in Kabul.

Afghanistan

The Afghan government took official control of the southern Taliban stronghold of Marjah on Thursday, installing an administrator and raising the national flag while U.S.-led troops rooted out final pockets of militants. The ceremony occurred in a central market as U.S. Marines and Afghan troops slogged through bomb-laden fields in northern parts of the town. Some 700 residents gathered to see Abdul Zahir Aryan formally appointed as the top government official in Marjah.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has condemned suicide attacks in Kabul, the capital, that killed at least 17 people including Indian citizens saying the strikes won’t hurt Afghan-Indian relations. The terrorist attacks that occurred Friday targeting two guesthouses in central Kabul where most of the guests were Indian. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying five suicide bombers conducted the early morning attacks on two buildings used by foreign citizens. Police said Indians were among those killed in the blasts.

The number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan has reached 1,000, an independent website said on Tuesday, with deadly bombings in the south and east highlighting the struggle to stabilize the country. A website which tracks casualties, http://www.icasualties.org, said 54 U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan this year, raising the total to 1,000 since the Taliban’s fall. This compares with eight this year in Iraq, where 4,378 have been killed since 2003.

Iraq

A leading Sunni politician abandoned his call for a boycott of the upcoming national elections only to be accused by a government panel headed by a Shiite rival of supporting an insurgent group. Saleh Al-Mutlaq said he changed his mind because he decided that the stakes in the elections are too high. Voters will vote for 325 members of Iraq‘s parliament. He asked his supporters to vote for the Iraqiya List, a mixed Sunni-Shiite list led by former prime minister Ayad Allawi. “If the Iraqiya list doesn’t emerge as the biggest bloc and the Shiite religious parties are in control, the country will fall into chaos,” he said.

The Iraqi military will reinstate 20,000 Saddam Hussein-era army officers who were dismissed from their posts after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion for serving under the former dictator, an Iraqi defense spokesman said Friday. The announcement, a little over a week before the March 7 parliamentary elections, immediately raised questions about whether the move was timed to pump up votes for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. A defense ministry statement said the rehired officers would be reinstated as of Sunday, meaning they would be allowed to vote in the election.

  • Politics and politicians ruin government regardless of nationality

Open Doors USA reports that Christians in Mosul, Iraq, are again fleeing the city as anti-Christian violence continues. “It was a bloody day yesterday in Mosul,” an Iraqi worker of Open Doors reported today. “In one house all the family members were killed — five people… They even threw two bodies outside the house as a cruel warning for others.” Another worker reported that three family members of a Catholic priest were also killed. In the past week, 40 to 50 families, consisting of an average of five members per family, have left Mosul. Another team member of Open Doors said, “I think that since this weekend one or two families leave Mosul every day. However, we receive about 10 phone calls every day of people who say that they want to leave the city.” Officials have reportedly told Christians that security forces cannot guarantee their safety.

Weather

When even Mongolians complain, you know it’s cold. As Americans shiver through lower than average temperatures this winter, the people of Mongolia and the animals they rely on suffer from temperatures that are extreme even by their standards. Officials in Ulaanbaatar, the snowbound capital, have declared disaster status in more than half of Mongolia’s 21 provinces, and more are set to follow across the vast, sparsely populated nation, roughly the size of Alaska. After weeks of heavy snowfalls, fierce winds and temperatures as low as minus-58 degrees, 2.3 million livestock have perished and an additional 3 million may die by spring, according to the Mongolian government.

A huge, windy winter storm lingered Friday over the Northeast, cutting power to at least a half-million customers, fanning a hotel fire in New Hampshire, and disrupting air and road travel across the region. Power failures were so bad in New Hampshire that even the state Emergency Operations Center was operating on a generator. A fire that started in an unoccupied oceanfront hotel was fanned by winds of near hurricane force and spread to adjacent buildings, engulfing and destroying an entire block of businesses. Winds across the region were near 50 mph as utility companies prepared for even more outages due to toppled trees and near-blizzard conditions. In New York City, 10 inches of snow had fallen before dawn and more was expected. One day after sections of northeastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Maine dealt with upward of 20 inches of snow and portions of northern New England weathered heavy rains that pushed some rivers toward flood levels, more of the same was forecast throughout Friday.

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