Archive for March, 2010

March 31, 2010

U.S. Transit Security Boosted

Millions of U.S. subway riders Monday morning saw extra police, some of them heavily armed, as transit agencies stepped up security following suicide bombings in Moscow‘s subway. Police in the Washington transit system, the nation’s second-busiest, staged random sweeps of stations and rail yards all day Monday. The attacks Monday, which killed at least 39 and wounded more than 60, generated fears of a copycat strike in the U.S. and reminded passengers of the vulnerability of subway and rail systems. “Terrorists see surface transportation as an attractive target because of its ease of access,” said Brian Jenkins, director of the National Transportation Security Center in California.

Census Misses 1.6 Million Addresses

About 120 million Census forms have gone out and a second mailing is underway to prod procrastinators, but the Census Bureau is going to have to send an additional 1.6 million to addresses it missed the first time. Nearly 2,600 local governments appealed the Census address list for their communities. Nevada‘s Clark County, home of Las Vegas, appealed the largest number, submitting more than 47,000 additional addresses. New York City submitted 36,181 addresses.

  • And people trust the federal government to increase healthcare and reduce the deficit at the same time????

Vatican to Raise Legal Obstacles to Abuse Claims

Dragged deeper than ever into the clerical sex abuse scandal, the Vatican is launching a legal defense that it hopes will shield the pope from a lawsuit in Kentucky seeking to have him answer attorneys’ questions under oath. Court documents obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press show that Vatican lawyers plan to argue that the pope has immunity as head of state, that American bishops who oversaw abusive priests weren’t employees of the Vatican. The Holy See is trying to fend off the first U.S. case to reach the stage of determining whether victims actually have a claim against the Vatican itself for negligence for allegedly failing to alert police or the public about Roman Catholic priests who molested children.

Two-Thirds of U.S. Oppose Health Law

Almost two-thirds of Americans believe the new healthcare law is too expensive and gives too much authority to the government for healthcare, according to a USA Today/Gallup Poll: 65 percent say the government’s role in healthcare is being expanded too far, 64 percent say the program will cost the government too much, 58 percent say it doesn’t do enough to brake rising costs and 51 percent say it doesn’t do enough to regulate the healthcare industry.

Health Premiums to Rise for Young Adults

Under the health care overhaul, young adults who buy their own insurance will carry a heavier burden of the medical costs of older Americans— a shift expected to raise insurance premiums for young people when the plan takes full effect. Beginning in 2014, most Americans will be required to buy insurance or pay a tax penalty. That’s when premiums for young adults seeking coverage on the individual market would likely climb by 17% on average, or roughly $42 a month, according to an analysis of the plan conducted for The Associated Press. The higher costs will pinch many people in their 20s and early 30s who are struggling to start or advance their careers with the highest unemployment rate in 26 years.

Shortage of Primary Care Doctors to Worsen

Primary care physicians already are in short supply in parts of the country, and the landmark health overhaul that will bring them millions more newly insured patients in the next few years promises extra strain. Recently published reports predict a shortfall of roughly 40,000 primary care doctors over the next decade, a field losing out to the better pay, better hours and higher profile of many other specialties. Provisions in the new law aim to start reversing that tide, from bonus payments for certain physicians to expanded community health centers that will pick up some of the slack. Only 30% of U.S. doctors practice primary care. The government says 65 million people live in areas designated as having a shortage of primary care physicians, places already in need of more than 16,600 additional providers to fill the gaps.

Forecasters at Odds about Warming Threat

Is climate change a serious threat to humanity or a scam trumped up by agenda-minded activists? Even the nation’s TV weathercasters can’t agree on that scientific dilemma, according to the largest survey of the profession to date released Monday by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. The majority — 63 percent — say global warming is caused “mostly by natural changes in the environment” compared with 31 percent who blamed the phenomenon on “human activities.” More than a quarter said they agreed that the phenomenon is “a scam.” Another 48 percent said global warming should be a “low” priority for President Obama and Congress; one out of three felt is should be given “medium” priority; 23 percent felt is was of “high” importance.

Obama to Allow Oil Drilling off Virginia Coast

In a reversal of a long-standing ban on most offshore drilling, President Obama is allowing oil drilling 50 miles off Virginia’s shorelines. At the same time, he is rejecting some new drilling sites that had been planned in Alaska. However, he is allowing an expansion in Alaska’s Cook Inlet to go forward. The plan also would leave in place the moratorium on drilling off the West Coast. Obama’s plan offers few concessions to environmentalists, who have been strident in their opposition to more oil platforms off the nation’s shores. Hinted at for months, the plan modifies a ban that for more than 20 years has limited drilling along coastal areas other than the Gulf of Mexico. Officials pitched the changes as ways to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil and create jobs — both politically popular ideas — but the president’s decisions also could help secure support for a climate change bill languishing in Congress.

U.S. Lags in Internet Speed

Broadband Internet speeds in the United States are only about one-fourth as fast as those in South Korea, the world leader, according to the Internet monitoring firm Akamai. And, as if to add insult to injury, U.S. Internet connections are more expensive than those in South Korea, too. In fact, 17 countries have faster broadband service than the good old USA. The cause? Government control has limited our options. In the U.S., competition among companies that provide broadband connections is relatively slim. Most people choose between a cable company and a telephone company when they sign up for Internet service. In other countries, including South Korea, the choices are more varied.

It’s an App World, and It’s Growing Fast

More than 100,000 apps (shorthand for the ubiquitous software applications that live on smart phones) now populate Apple‘s App Store, which opened for business two years ago. Since then, more than 2 billion apps have been downloaded. Tech specialists estimate the annual app market at $2 billion, despite the fact that most apps are free or 99 cents. “The sea change here is that people are gradually moving away from spending time with TV and computers to their mobile devices,” says Matt Murphy, who manages the iFund. He points to recent statistics prepared by Morgan Stanley showing that typical cellphone users now spend 30% of their 40-minutes-a-day average on data, and iPhone users spend 55% of their 60-minute average on non-talking phone activities.

One in Four U.S. Christians Identify as Charismatic

The Barna Group reports that the charismatic movement is very much alive in young Christians, both Protestant and Catholic. More than half (56) of younger Christians, aged 18 to 25, say they believe charismatic gifts are valid today, and about one in four identified as charismatic or Pentecostal. That number was slightly lower among U.S. Christians as a whole, but 25 percent of Protestants and 20 percent of Catholics still identify with the charismatic movement. Younger Christians, however, are less likely to adopt specific theology with their charismatic beliefs. “It raises the question of what will define the next generation of young charismatics and Pentecostal believers in the U.S.,” said David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group. “Facing less criticism from within the ranks of Christians, they must focus on being grounded theologically and finding a way to live faithfully within the broader culture of arts, media, technology, science, and business.”

Economic News

Home prices showed the smallest annual decline in almost three years in January. The Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index is down just 0.7% from last year on a seasonally adjusted basis. Better still, prices rose 0.3% from December to January, the eighth consecutive monthly gain. Among the 20 cities in the index, 12 rose.

Factory orders rose in February, bolstered by strong demand for industrial machinery and commercial aircraft. It was the 10th increase in 11 months as manufacturing provides crucial support for the economic recovery.

Consumer confidence in the economy rebounded in March. But Americans are still wary as they deal with a weak job market. The Conference Board said Tuesday its Consumer Confidence Index rose to 52.5 in March, recovering about half of the nearly 11 points it lost in February. A reading of 90 would indicate a healthy economy.

The Obama administration unveiled Monday $600 million in financial aid for five more states with high unemployment that have been slammed by the housing bust. The funding is for North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina and Rhode Island. It comes on top of the $1.5 billion in funding announced last month by the Obama administration for Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada, which all have deeply depressed home prices. State agencies must design programs that need to be approved by the Treasury Department.

Ireland’s government said Tuesday it will help banks raise nearly 22 billion euros ($30 billion), much of it from taxpayers, to meet stiff new capital requirements that are part of a plan to resolve the nation’s banking crisis. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan also announced terms for the first transfers of bad loans, around 16 billion euros ($21.5 billion) worth, to the new “bad bank” — the National Asset Management Agency. The state already has a 16% stake in Bank of Ireland and a 25% indirect stake in Allied Irish, and it was unclear how large the stakes might grow.

Russia

Two suicide bombers including one impersonating a police officer killed 12 people in southern Russia on Wednesday, two days after deadly suicide bombings blamed on the region’s militants tore through the Moscow subway system. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Wednesday’s blasts in the province of Dagestan may have been organized by the same militants who attacked the Moscow subway. Bombings and other attacks occur almost daily in Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia, provinces in Russia’s North Caucasus region where government forces are struggling against a separatist Islamist insurgency.

Haiti

The Haitian government will be seeking about $3.8 billion at a donors conference this week to start rebuilding the country after January’s devastating earthquake. U.N. officials urged donor nations to respond generously so that the Western hemisphere’s poorest nation can reconstruct hospitals, schools, government buildings, roads and ports. Haiti needs to “rebuild and redesign the country in a way that puts … (it) on the road to growth and modernization,” they said. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are chairing Wednesday’s fundraising conference. Co-chairs include Brazil, Canada, the European Union, France, and Spain— all leading donors to Haiti. Representatives of more than 100 nations will attend the conference Wednesday.

Afghanistan

Getting the support of tribal elders for the Karzai government in the Arghandab District is critical to U.S. plans to push the Taliban from Kandahar province, birthplace of the jihadist movement. Coalition forces are trying to navigate the complexities of Afghan politics — a mixture of tribal feuds, government corruption and varying levels of sympathy for the Taliban — to persuade the people to turn from the Taliban to Karzai. Over the course of 60 years in Afghanistan, tribal leaders have heard promises from an Afghan king, Soviet commanders, mujahedin fighters and Taliban mullahs. Over the last decade, they’ve heard from two U.S. presidents and countless coalition officials. Needless to say, they are highly skeptical of new promises.

President Hamid Karzai and representatives of a major militant group wrapped up a first round of peace talks Tuesday, reaching no final deal but pledging to continue a dialogue that if successful would split the ranks of the Taliban-led insurgency. The talks with Hizb-i-Islami were the first public face-to-face negotiations in the capital between Karzai and representatives of an insurgent group. Hizb-i-Islami, led by former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is far smaller than the Taliban but is active in at least four provinces of eastern Afghanistan and parts of the north.

Pakistan

Pakistani fighter jets bombed several militant hide-outs near the Afghan border Tuesday, killing at least 30 suspected insurgents The assault took place in Orakzai, a tribal region where many Pakistani Taliban fighters are believed to have fled to escape an army offensive further south. The military launched another operation in Orakzai last week, and nearly 150 alleged militants and five soldiers have died in gunbattles and airstrikes so far. The remote, dangerous nature of the region makes it nearly impossible to verify the military and government accounts, and it is unclear how the authorities are distinguishing civilians from insurgents in the death tolls.

Iran

A recently published report by the Central Intelligence Agency says Iran is still working on building a nuclear weapon despite some technical setbacks and international resistance — and the Pentagon say it’s still concerned about Iran’s ambitions. “Iran continued to expand its nuclear infrastructure and continued uranium enrichment and activities related to its heavy water research reactor, despite multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions since late 2006 calling for the suspension of those activities,” the report says. The CIA’s new characterization of Iran’s nuclear program stands in contradiction to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which determined the country halted its nuclear production efforts in 2003.

Mexico

At least 30 residents of El Porvenir, located about four miles from the Texas border town of Fort Hancock, have crossed into the U.S. and asked for political asylum, telling authorities that they fear for their lives. Residents of the small Mexican border town under siege by at least one of the country’s most notorious drug cartels are fleeing into a tiny Texas community, which is on high alert and preparing for a surge of illegal immigrants should a street battle break out with another cartel – or if gunmen begin carrying out a threat to start killing the town’s children. The cartel posted signs in El Porvenir earlier in the month ordering people in the town of 10,000 “to get out or pay with blood.” Since then, Fort Hancock, population 1700, has been in the grip of fear.

Weather

Floodwaters in New England have forced scores of people from their homes for the second time in a month after a record-setting deluge poured more than 8 inches of new rain over the area. In Warwick, R.I., 300 apartments and 100 businesses were evacuated this week, including a couple dozen homes that did the same thing two weeks ago. The storm dumped almost 10 inches in 36 hours in some places. According to the National Weather Service, it has been the wettest March ever in New York City; Bridgeport, Conn.; and Islip, N.Y. In Boston, the 13.63 inches that have fallen since March 1 made it the second-wettest month since record-keeping began in 1872.

This year may be one of the worst on record for the beleaguered monarch butterfly, experts say. Massive hailstorms that dropped 2 inches of ice on the trees where the orange-and-black-winged butterflies spend the winter in Mexico, followed by 15 inches of rain, could mean that as many as 50% were killed this year. The area northwest of Mexico City where the winged creatures gather was hit hard by the severe weather. Fifty people died in the area. The monarch population is typically measured by the number of acres of pine trees the butterflies fill. This year, scientists found the smallest area of monarchs overwintering in the 16 years they have been looking — down to 4.7 acres from an average of 18.3 acres.

  • End-time weather will continue to destabilize regardless of what humans do or don’t do about global warming

March 29, 2010

Christian Militia Groups Target Cops

Nines suspects associated with the Christian militia group Hutaree have been charged with conspiring to kill police officers and then attack a funeral in hopes of killing more law enforcement officials, federal prosecutors said Monday. U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said agents moved on the group because the militia members were planning an attack sometime in April. The Michigan-based Christian militia group raided by the FBI over the weekend is preparing for battle with the Antichrist, according to a Web site purportedly run by the group. “Jesus wanted us to be ready to defend ourselves using the sword and stay alive using equipment,” Hutaree.com reads. “The only thing on earth to save the testimony and those who follow it, are the members of the testimony, til the return of Christ in the clouds. We, the Hutaree, are prepared to defend all those who belong to Christ and save those who aren’t. We will still spread the word, and fight to keep it, up to the time of the great coming.”

  • Defending ourselves and protecting other Christians is a God-given right – killing cops is not. If this report is true, it will only serve to further empower gun-control advocates and give Christians another black eye. Jesus told the disciples, “he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one” (Luke 22:36b), but He didn’t say to go out on a killing spree.

U.S., Russia Agree to Slash Nukes by Third

The U.S. and Russia sealed the first major nuclear weapons treaty in nearly two decades Friday, agreeing to slash the former Cold War rivals’ warhead arsenals by nearly one-third and talking hopefully of eventually ridding a fearful world of nuclear arms altogether. President Barack Obama said the pact was part of an effort to “reset” relations with Russia that have been badly frayed. And at home the agreement gave him the biggest foreign policy achievement of his presidency. Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will sign the agreement April 8 in Prague, where Obama gave a major speech on doing away with nuclear arms one year ago. If ratified by the Senate and by Russia’s legislature, the reductions still would leave both countries, by far the world’s largest nuclear powers, with immense arsenals — and the ability to easily annihilate each other. Together, the United States and Russia possess about 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

USA Leads World in Arms Sales

The United States accounts for 30% of global arms exports, having sold $34.5 billion in arms to other countries from 2005-2009. The leading purchasers of U.S. produced arms are, in order, South Korea, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Japan, Australia and Egypt.

  • Let’s hope and pray that arms sold to Muslim countries don’t come back to bite us.

Obama Announces 15 Recess Appointments

Fed up with waiting, President Obama announced Saturday he would bypass a vacationing Senate and name 15 people to key administration jobs, wielding for the first time the blunt political tool known as the recess appointment. The move immediately deepened the divide between the Democratic president and Republicans in the Senate following a long, bruising fight over health care. The 15 appointees to boards and agencies include the contentious choice of union lawyer Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board. Republicans had blocked his nomination on grounds he would bring a radical pro-union agenda to the job. Coming on the heels of Mr. Obama’s big victory on health care legislation, Saturday’s move suggests a newly emboldened president who is unafraid to provoke a confrontation with the minority party.

Obama Announces New Homeowner-Assistance Program

The Obama administration disclosed plans Friday to add two key components to its homeowner-assistance program: mortgage help for borrowers who have lost their jobs and principal-balance reduction for those with unaffordable monthly payments. Homeowners facing the possibility of foreclosure said they were encouraged by the new additions to Obama’s Home Affordable Modification Program, or HAMP, especially the push to reduce loan balances for millions who owe more than their homes are worth. The downside, skeptics said, is that the program needed a major overhaul, and all it got was a tune-up. Aside from adding the recently unemployed, the revised program does not appear to widen what was a narrow eligibility window for the original program, according to the limited information federal officials provided Friday.

Healthcare Compliance to Cost over $1 Billon

Collecting taxes under the Democrats’ newly passed health-care plan will cost the federal government more than $1 billion a year in salaries alone, Republicans in Congress estimate. The legislation will require the IRS to hire as many as 16,500 additional auditors, agents and other employees to investigate and collect billions in new taxes imposed on Americans. “The Internal Revenue Service will see its largest expansion since withholding taxes were enacted during World War II to enforce the glut of new tax mandates and penalties included in the Democrats’ latest health care plan,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas.

Healthcare Protests

At least 9,000 people streamed into tiny Searchlight, a former mining town 60 miles south of Las Vegas, bringing American flags, “Don’t Tread on Me” signs and outspoken anger toward Reid, President Barack Obama, the health care overhaul and other Democrats who supported it, especially Sen. Harry Reid who lives in Searchlight. A string of polls has shown Reid is vulnerable in politically moderate Nevada after pushing Obama’s agenda in Congress. His standing has also been hurt by Nevada’s double-digit unemployment and record foreclosure and bankruptcy rates.

Poll Reveals Wide Scale Discontent

A WorldNetDaily/Wenzel Poll revealed Americans believe overwhelmingly – nearly 60 percent to about 35 percent – that the nation is going in the wrong direction. Nearly that same percentage believe President Obama is doing a poor or only fair job, and a stunning total of more than 80 percent of voters believe Congress is doing only fair (18.8 percent) or poor (62 percent). Asked if they are more likely to vote this year for a congressman who supported the health care bill, 44 percent said they are more likely, while 53 percent said they are less likely to do so.

Nearly 72 percent of voters said they were much less likely or somewhat less likely to support an incumbent in Congress who backs “granting citizenship to millions of people who are now living illegally here in the U.S.” – essentially an amnesty program. Some 82 percent of voters are much less likely or somewhat less likely to support incumbents who back more bailouts for banks and companies. Nearly 60 percent oppose incumbents who support “economic stimulus” legislation.

Recession Continues to Impact Church Donations

The Washington Times reports that even more churches experienced a steep drop in giving in 2009 than the year before. According to the “State of the Plate” survey from Christianity Today International (CTI) and the Colorado Springs firm Maximum Generosity, 38 percent of churches nationwide saw their giving donations drop in 2009. In 2008, 29 percent of churches said their giving decreased. Megachurches of more than 2,000 attendees were most likely to see donations drop, with 47 percent reporting a decrease. “Most churches go into December assuming they will get that final kick, and they missed out big,” said the Rev. Brian Kluth, founder of Maximum Generosity and pastor of First Evangelical Free Church in Colorado Springs. “Well, we’re in a different kind of economy. This is the new normal.”

Economic News

As Congress enjoys a two-week vacation, thousands of Americans will begin to lose jobless benefits because lawmakers failed to resolve a dispute over how to pay for an extension of unemployment insurance. A current extension of jobless benefits for Americans who have been out of work for more than six months expires April 5. But lawmakers, who left town on Friday, won’t be back on Capitol Hill until April 12.

Regulators have shut down two Georgia banks and one in Florida, bringing to 40 the number of bank failures in the U.S. so far this year. The three failures are expected cost the federal deposit insurance fund a total of around $213.6 million.

Consumers spent modestly last month, a sign that the economic recovery is proceeding at a decent — but not spectacular — pace. The Commerce Department reported Monday that consumers boosted their spending 0.3% in February. That was a tad slower than the 0.4% increase registered in January and marked the smallest increase since September.

The Treasury Department said Monday it will begin selling the stake it owns in Citigroup, which could result in a profit of more than $8 billion. The government received 7.7 billion shares of Citigroup in exchange for $25 billion it gave the bank during the 2008 credit crisis.

Israel

Israel withdrew its troops from the Gaza Strip Saturday after some of the fiercest gunbattles with Palestinian militants in the Hamas-run territory since last year’s military offensive. Israeli troops used bulldozers to “remove infrastructure used by terrorists to attack soldiers” before the early morning withdrawal, a military spokeswoman said. Gaza militants, meanwhile, fired a rocket into southern Israel on Saturday, but no injuries were reported, the military said. Two others fell short of Israeli territory. The violence began Friday when soldiers patrolling the border crossed into Gaza after spotting Palestinians planting explosives near the fence with Israel.

Israeli security forces said they will close the West Bank region from midnight Sunday to Tuesday, April 6. Only people who need medical attention and journalists with appropriate credentials will be allowed to cross, the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement. The measure was enacted “following situation assessments adopted by the defense establishment,” the statement said. Closures preventing Palestinians from traveling out of the occupied territory are not uncommon during Jewish holidays. However, the latest comes amid increased tension between Palestinians and Israelis.

Iraq

Iraq‘s secular former prime minister edged out Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in parliamentary vote totals released Friday, upsetting the Shiite-backed premier’s re-election bid and earning the right to get the first shot at trying to form a government. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said Saturday his secular political alliance is open to bringing any of his rivals into a governing coalition that can restore Iraq‘s place in the Arab and Muslim world after years of war. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who vowed to challenge the results. But with a razor-thin margin over al-Maliki’s coalition, Allawi’s road to regaining the premiership is anything but guaranteed, and a lengthy period of political negotiations — possibly punctuated with violence — likely lies ahead. Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition won 91 seats to 89 for al-Maliki’s State of Law bloc, riding a wave of support from Sunnis frustrated with the current government, which they say has incited sectarian tensions and is too closely aligned with neighboring Iran.

Iraq‘s prime minister rebuked the United Nations for not backing his demand that the ballots from the country’s March 7 parliamentary elections be recounted. The campaign may herald a protracted political struggle and extended haggling that could undermine the credibility of Iraq’s nascent democracy and unleash a new bout of sectarian violence at a time when the U.S. is preparing to pull all its troops out of the country.

Afghanistan

President Obama made a surprise visit Sunday to Afghanistan to prod Kabul to make good on promises to improve internal security and crack down on corruption. The short nighttime trip, Obama’s first to Afghanistan as president, was made under extraordinary secrecy and comes at a critical time in a war that Obama has made his own. Karzai won a second term last year in an election marred by allegations of corruption. Obama’s administration has pushed Karzai to take action, such as combating corruption and reforming the country’s legal system, that would bolster his government’s legitimacy in the eyes of its citizens. National security adviser James Jones said a principal reason for the trip was to “engage President Karzai … to make him understand that in his second term, there are certain things that have been not paid attention to, almost since day one.”

The number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan has roughly doubled in the first three months of 2010 compared to the same period last year as Washington has added tens of thousands of additional soldiers to reverse the Taliban‘s momentum. Those deaths have been accompanied by a dramatic spike in the number of wounded, with injuries more than tripling in the first two months of the year. U.S. officials have warned that casualties are likely to rise even further as the Pentagon completes its deployment of 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan and sets its sights on the Taliban’s home base of Kandahar province, where a major operation is expected in the coming months.

Russian

Two female suicide bombers blew themselves up on Moscow‘s subway system as it was jam-packed with rush-hour passengers Monday, killing at least 37 people and wounding 102. The head of Russia’s main security agency said preliminary investigation places the blame on rebels from the restive Caucasus region that includes Chechnya, where separatists have fought Russian forces since the mid-1990s. Russian police have killed several Islamic militant leaders in the North Caucasus recently, including one last week in the Kabardino-Balkariya region. The killing of Anzor Astemirov was mourned by contributors to two al-Qaeda-affiliated websites.

Mexico

More than 7,000 people have gathered in the northern Mexico city of Monterrey to protest a wave of violence that has affected the country’s third largest city in recent weeks. The border state has seen a surge in violence that authorities blame on a turf war between the Gulf drug cartel and the Zetas, the cartel’s former hit men. Hours before the rally Sunday, two soldiers and a civilian were wounded in a shootout between troops and gunmen in Monterrey.

The decapitated body of the police chief of a northern Mexico town and the body of his brother were found inside the chief’s patrol truck Friday Hours earlier, gunmen killed a deputy police chief and his bodyguard in another part of Mexico’s north. The slayings came a day after Mexican marines on patrol in the Nuevo Leon town of Cerralvo came under fire after ordering a convoy of gunmen traveling in six vehicles to stop. Six of the assailants were killed.

Congo

A December rampage that killed hundreds in the Democratic Republic of Congo went largely unreported because of lack of communications in the remote area, a United Nations official said Sunday. The Lord’s Resistance Army carried out the brutal campaign in northeastern Congo over four days, killing at least 321, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Rebels also abducted 250 others — including at least 80 children — when they attacked villages in Makombo area. The Lord’s Resistance Army was initially based in Uganda, but now works near the borders of Central African Republic, Sudan and Congo. The anti-Ugandan government rebel group is led by self-declared prophet Joseph Kony. It claims its insurgency aims to replace the Ugandan government with a democracy based on the Ten Commandments.

Earthquakes

A strong earthquake shook northern Chile Friday. There were no immediate reports of victims or damage from the quake, which the U.S. Geological Survey gave a preliminary magnitude of 6.2. Its epicenter was near Copiapo, 380 miles north of the capital of Santiago.

Weather

Coral reefs are dying, and scientists and governments around the world are contemplating what will happen if they disappear altogether. Coral reefs are part of the foundation of the ocean food chain. Nearly half the fish the world eats make their homes around them. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide — by some estimates, 1 billion across Asia alone — depend on them for their food and their livelihoods. At least 19% of the world’s coral reefs are already gone, including some 50% of those in the Caribbean. An additional 15% could be dead within 20 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Experts say cutting back on carbon emissions to arrest rising sea temperatures and acidification of the water, declaring some reefs off limits to fishing and diving, and controlling coastal development and pollution could help reverse, or at least stall, the tide.

Residents along a 150-mile swath of North Carolina were securing homes ripped open to the elements and a handful of people were nursing injuries Monday after a series of suspected tornadoes churned through the region. National Weather Service teams fanned out Monday to five communities to establish whether the ruined homes and broken trees were caused by tornadoes that spun out of a severe weather system Sunday night. Residents reported that as many as eight tornadoes touched down, overturning mobile homes, ripping out trees and plunging neighborhoods into darkness. The high winds left one home’s second floor with just its bare walls standing after its roof was peeled off.

March 26, 2010

Both Sides of Abortion Issue Dismiss Executive Order

Both sides in the abortion debate came to a rare agreement on Wednesday: The executive order on abortion signed by President Obama, they said, was basically meaningless. “A transparent political fig leaf,” according to the National Right to Life Committee‘s Douglas Johnson. “A symbolic gesture,” said Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards. The order states that no public funds will be used to pay for abortions in health insurance exchanges to be set up by the government. It was the coda to a long battle that nearly derailed passage of the roughly health care bill. Obama agreed to issue the order to placate a group of House Democrats who oppose abortion rights, led by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich. They had demanded that the health care bill include specific language banning any use of government funds or tax subsidies for abortions.

Senate Reconciliation Bill Passed

After running through an obstacle course of Republican amendments and procedural objections, the Senate voted Thursday, 56-43, approving changes that were part of a deal made when the House passed the nearly $940 billion legislation on Sunday. The House then approved the bill 220-207, getting only get Democratic votes as it did earlier in the week. Some House Democrats agreed to support the bill on a promise that the Senate would pass some changes. The revisions passed by Congress: Closed a gap in prescription-drug coverage for seniors under Medicare by increasing drug benefits; eliminated a deal to give Nebraska more money for Medicaid, the federal-state program for the poor, that was aimed at getting Nelson’s vote in December, when the Senate passed the original health care bill; and delayed a tax on high-priced insurance plans until 2018.

Fourteen States Suing Federal Gov’t over Healthcare

Fourteen states have filed suit against the federal government to protect their citizens from the overreach of the federal government. In addition to the state lawsuits, legislatures in at least 36 states have proposed measures to challenge the constitutionality of the new bill, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty-nine states also are calling for ballot questions to amend their constitutions to keep residents from having to buy insurance or face fines. The American Family Association notes that “you will look in vain among the enumerated powers of Article I, Section 8 for the right of the federal government to mandate that American citizens purchase health insurance. It’s not there. When they formed the Constitution, the states delegated 17 powers – and no more – to the central government. Those powers are listed in Article I, Section 8. Since Congress has only the powers granted to it by the states, if a power is not listed in Article I, Section 8, Congress and the president have no legitimate authority to act. Every other ‘power,’ or right to act, is reserved to the states by the 10th Amendment.” Health care is neither a constitutional nor a legal right.

Arizona’s Democratic Attorney General Terry Goddard says he won’t join lawsuits filed by other states’ attorneys general to challenge the federal health care overhaul. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer responded to Goddard’s announcement Wednesday by saying through her spokesman that she will pursue a lawsuit even without Goddard’s involvement. Brewer said Tuesday her office has the constitutional authority to do it herself, and could do it, as early as this week.

New Tea-Party Tour Targets Healthcare Supporters

“Tea Party” activists are going after politicians they want removed from office by launching a national bus tour to 44 rallies beginning March 27th.. After a kickoff rally Saturday in Laughlin, Nev., the tour stops in Searchlight, Nev., hometown of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who shepherded the health care bill that President Obama signed into law Tuesday. The Tea Party is the name adopted by a loose confederation of fiscally conservative small-government activists. The bus tour will stop in 23 states, ending in Washington on April 15, the tax filing deadline. Sarah Palin, the Republican nominee for vice president in 2008, will headline the Searchlight rally.

Poll Shows Health Care Plan Gaining Favor

More Americans now favor than oppose the health care overhaul that President Obama signed into law Tuesday, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds — a notable turnaround from surveys before the vote that showed a plurality against the legislation. By 49%-40%, those polled say it was “a good thing” rather than a bad one that Congress passed the bill. Half describe their reaction in positive terms — as “enthusiastic” or “pleased” — while about four in 10 describe it in negative ways, as “disappointed” or “angry.” The largest single group, 48%, calls the legislation “a good first step” that needs to be followed by more action. Nearly one-third of those surveyed, 31%, say the bill makes “the wrong types of changes,” and 8% say the health care system doesn’t need reform.

  • Like lemmings, the “give me mine” entitlement mentality of the American public will lead them right off the cliff formed by our mountain of debt and unconstitutional, socialistic government control

Fox Poll: 79% Fear Economic Collapse

A Fox News poll revealed Tuesday that most American voters believe it’s possible the nation’s economy could collapse, and majorities don’t think elected officials in Washington have ideas for fixing it. The poll finds that 79 percent of voters think it’s possible the economy could collapse, including large majorities of Democrats (72 percent), Republicans (84 percent), and independents (80 percent). Voters are clearly concerned with rising deficits and massive government spending places like the new healthcare overhaul. Moreover, 78 percent of voters believe the federal government is “larger and more costly” than it has ever been before, and by nearly 3-to-1 more voters think the national debt (65 percent) is a greater potential threat to the country’s future than terrorism (23 percent).

Arizona Fears Flood of Uninsured Patients

Arizona’s community health centers, a vital safety net for the uninsured and the working poor, are bracing for an onslaught of new patients and preparing to roll back their services after two state health-care programs were killed and the state’s Medicaid spending was slashed. New patients cut off from government insurance programs could flood the centers, and the centers would not have reimbursements from those programs to cover the full cost of providing care. The 16 federally qualified centers, which are non-profits and operate more than 130 clinics in mostly rural and underserved areas, rely mainly on state and federal insurance and federal grants to operate. The losses will likely be far greater than the millions of dollars in additional federal money for community clinics that is part of health-care reform legislation, which was signed Tuesday.

Arizona hospitals say the Legislature’s steep cuts to health-care programs may trigger more hospital cuts and layoffs, longer emergency-room waits and a deepening doctor shortage. Arizona hospitals say the Legislature’s steep cuts to health-care programs may trigger more hospital cuts and layoffs, longer emergency-room waits and a deepening doctor shortage. Hospital executives worry that they will have to absorb the cost and burden of providing treatment for the low-income residents and children until the more generous federal subsidies arrive in 2014 as part of the federal health-reform bill. Hospitals are required to provide care regardless of a patient’s ability to pay.

Health Care Bill Requires Calories on Menus at Chain Restaurants

A requirement tucked into the massive U.S health care bill will make calorie counts impossible for thousands of restaurants to hide and difficult for consumers to ignore. More than 200,000 fast food and other chain restaurants will have to include calorie counts on menus, menu boards and even drive-throughs. The new law, which applies to any restaurant with 20 or more locations, directs the Food and Drug Administration to create a new national standard for menu labeling, superseding a growing number of state and city laws. Many restaurants currently post nutritional information in a hallway, on a hamburger wrapper or on their website. The new law will make calories immediately available for most items.

States Struggle to Tally Food-Borne Illnesses

State and local reporting of food-borne illnesses is the first line of defense against national outbreaks. Yet a study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest finds that almost half of states do a poor job of tracking outbreaks — and suggests passing legislation to reform the Food and Drug Administration will help. Tracking the number of reported illnesses is a good measure of a state’s investment in public health surveillance. It is key to figuring out the causes of big, multistate outbreaks. The Food Safety Modernization Act, scheduled to go before the Senate in April, would require FDA to coordinate federal, state and local surveillance systems. More than 350,000 Americans are hospitalized each year and 5,000 die from preventable food-borne illness.

Irish Bishop Resigns over Sex Abuse Scandal

Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation Wednesday of Bishop John Magee, a former papal aide accused of endangering children by failing to follow the Irish church’s own rules on reporting suspected pedophile priests to police. Magee apologized to victims of any pedophile priests who were kept in parish posts since he took charge of the southwest Irish diocese of Cloyne in 1987. Pope Benedict has yet to accept resignation offers from three other Irish bishops who were linked to cover-ups of child-abuse cases in the Dublin Archdiocese.

Milwaukee’s Roman Catholic archbishop warned a top Vatican office led by the future Pope Benedict XVI about a priest who may have molested as many as 200 deaf boys, according to documents obtained by The New York Times, but the priest was never defrocked. In 1996, then-Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland sent letters about Murphy to the Vatican office called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which was led from 1981 to 2005 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future pope. Weakland received no response from Ratzinger, the New York Times reported. Eight months later, the second in command at the doctrinal office, Cardinal Tarciscio Bertone— now the Vatican’s secretary of state — told the Wisconsin bishops to begin secret disciplinary proceedings, according to the documents. But Bertone halted that process after Murphy wrote to Ratzinger saying he already had repented, was ailing and that the case’s statute of limitations had run out, the Times reported.

Germans are asking just when Pope Benedict XVI might say something about the clerical abuse scandal rocking the Catholic church in his native country. As the scandal has intensified in recent weeks, he chose not to say anything Wednesday during his weekly public audience, an occasion when he offers greetings and issues pronouncements in nine languages. More than 300 former students in German Catholic schools and choirs have come forward since January with abuse claims.

Catholic Clergy Abuse Claims Drop in USA

While the Roman Catholic church in Europe reels from a widening sex abuse crisis, the scandal that has plagued the U.S. church for nearly a decade is tapering off, a report released Tuesday says. The number of abuse victims, allegations and offending clergy in the U.S. dropped in 2009 to their lowest numbers since data started being collected in 2004. The latest annual report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops identifies 398 allegations of abuse involving clergy from Catholic dioceses in 2009 — a 36% decline from 2008. The price paid by the church has fallen, too. Dioceses and their insurers paid $104 million in settlements, attorneys’ fees and other abuse-related costs in 2009, down from $376 million in 2008. All told, the scandal’s price tag for settlements and other costs has risen to more than $2.7 billion, according to estimates.

Abuse Expert Says Scouts Put Boys at Risk

A psychologist testifying in a $14 million lawsuit against the Boy Scouts of America says the organization put boys at risk by hiding information about child molesters among troop leaders. Gary Schoener, a national expert on child sex abuse, told a jury in Portland on Wednesday that confidential files the Boy Scouts kept on suspected abusers from 1965-1984 were the deepest and most complete information about pedophiles then available in the country. He said the organization showed a reckless indifference by not sharing the information with parents and authorities. Attorneys for the Boy Scouts of America say the organization kept files on suspected molesters to protect children.

  • Secrecy by the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts, however well-intentioned, only served to allow pedophiles to continue their abusive ways

Judge: Lesbian Student’s Rights Violated

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the Itawamba County, Miss., school board violated the rights of a lesbian student by canceling the prom when the student challenged a ban on same-sex dates, but the judge stopped short of ordering the district to reinstate the April 2 prom. Constance McMillen, 18, and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Itawamba County school district when she was denied her request to bring her girlfriend, a sophomore, to the dance and to wear a tuxedo. U.S. District Court Judge Glen Davidson said he denied the injunction request because a private prom parents are planning will serve the same purpose as the school prom and because “requiring defendants to step back into a sponsorship role at this late date would only confuse and confound the community on the issue.”

Pentagon Releases New ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Rules

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced today that the Pentagon will make it more difficult to discharge openly gay or lesbian members of the military. Known as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the law was passed in 1993 and signed by President Bill Clinton. It allows openly gay men and lesbians to serve in the military but limits attempts to discover or reveal their sexuality if they do not engage in disallowed behavior. Supporters of scrapping the law applauded Gates’ move, saying it would limit abuses made under the policy and lead to its repeal. No longer will anonymous members of the military or public be able to make complaints about the sexuality of gay, lesbian or bisexual service members, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said.

  • The net effect will be to add a “Don’t Listen, Don’t Enforce” approach to the already unacceptable “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” compromise, as gays gain another foothold in society

Homeless Shelters Cost More than Rent

Cities, states and the federal government pay more to provide the homeless with short-term shelter and services than what it would cost to rent permanent housing, the U.S. government reports. Emergency shelter for families was the most costly. In Washington, D.C., the average bill for a month in an emergency shelter ranges from $2,500 to $3,700. In Houston, the average is $1,391. Many communities probably don’t know that they are spending as much “to maintain a cot in a gymnasium with 100 other cots” as it would cost to rent an efficiency apartment, says Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies housing policies. “We are paying for a form of housing that is largely substandard, and we are paying as much, if not more, than standard conventional housing.”

  • Everything costs more when run by the federal government – why would healthcare be any different?

Bees in More Distress after Tough Winter

The mysterious 4-year-old crisis of disappearing honeybees is deepening. A quick federal survey indicates a heavy bee die-off this winter, while a new study shows honeybees’ pollen and hives laden with pesticides. Two federal agencies along with regulators in California and Canada are scrambling to figure out what is behind this relatively recent threat, ordering new research on pesticides used in fields and orchards. Scientists are concerned because of the vital role bees play in our food supply. About one-third of the human diet is from plants that require pollination from honeybees, which means everything from apples to zucchini. Bees have been declining over decades from various causes. But in 2006 a new concern, “colony collapse disorder,” was blamed for large, inexplicable die-offs. The disorder, which causes adult bees to abandon their hives and fly off to die, is likely a combination of many causes, including parasites, viruses, bacteria, poor nutrition and pesticides, experts say.

Economic News

New claims for unemployment benefits fell more than expected last week. The Labor Department said Thursday that first-time claims for jobless benefits dropped 14,000 to a seasonally adjusted 442,000. The four-week average of claims, which smooths volatility, dropped 11,000 to 453,750, lowest since September 2008, when the financial crisis intensified, but still well above levels associated with a sound economy.

Sales of new homes fell unexpectedly to the lowest level on record in February as stormy winter weather kept buyers on the sidelines. The weak results make clear the difficulties facing the housing industry as it tries to recover from the worst slump in decades. The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that new home sales fell 2.2% last month to a seasonally adjusted annual sales pace of 308,000. It was the fourth consecutive month of declines and the worst showing on records dating to 1963.

Existing-home sales dipped 0.6% in February for the third month in a row to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.02 million from 5.05 million in January. That was still 7% higher than the 4.69 million pace in February 2009. An approaching deadline for claiming a home buyers’ tax credit is still expected to boost spring sales. The current credits, available to first-time and repeat buyers, require buyers to sign purchase contracts by April 30.

Orders for big-ticket manufactured goods rose for a third month in February, bolstered by strong demand for commercial aircraft and machinery. The Commerce Department said Wednesday that orders for durable goods advanced 0.5% last month.

Cash-strapped states are hitting smokers hard in the pocketbook, raising cigarette taxes to help plug budget shortfalls. So far this year, legislators have voted to raise cigarette taxes by $1 per pack in Utah and 75 cents a pack in New Mexico. At least a half dozen other states have been considering increases.

Last year, China spent more than any other major country on clean energy, including wind and solar, toppling the U.S. from the top spot for the first time in five years, the Pew report says. Unless U.S. policies change to encourage more investment, the U.S. could miss its chance to lead the expanding clean-energy industry, says Phyllis Cuttino, project director at Pew.

Greece

German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised a hard-won deal to rescue heavily indebted Greece from its financial woes, insisting Friday that it will steady the wobbly euro and showed that Europe could cope with the crisis despite having asked the International Monetary Fund to join in on a bailout package. The deal, reached late Thursday night at a meeting of European leaders, aims to halt the government debt crisis undermining Europe’s currency union. The joint eurozone and IMF bailout program comes with strict conditions, making no money available to Greece right now. It could be tapped only if Greece — or other financially troubled eurozone members — cannot raise funds from financial markets and would require the unanimous agreement of the 16 eurozone countries to release the loan funds.

Israel

The U.S. and Israel failed to heal their deepest dispute in decades as a two-day visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended late Wednesday without resolving a rift over new Israeli housing planned in east Jerusalem. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in an unusual pair of low-profile meetings at the White House amid a serious dispute about settlement construction. In a break with custom that seemed linked to the crisis complicating U.S.-Israeli relations, reporters were not invited to see them either for photographs or statements. At issue is Israel‘s announcement two weeks ago, as Vice President Joe Biden visited, that it will build 1,600 new apartments in east Jerusalem, the largely Arab section of the disputed holy city. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future state and have delayed new U.S.-sponsored peace talks over what they say is an Israeli land grab.

  • The political snub of Netanyahu is more than show. It represents a significant departure from traditional U.S. support of Israel which itself results from our country’s abandonment of the Judeo-Christian beliefs upon which this country was founded. In the long-term, there will be hell to pay for dissing God.

Afghanistan

A professional police force in Afghanistan is an important part of the strategy that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, has laid out for victory over the Taliban. U.S. forces are working on getting the police ready for their role, but they are not there yet. And it may be years before they are. Kandahar is where McChrystal is planning the next phase of his strategy to win over the locals and push out the Taliban. Honeycombed with jihadists, Kandahar is the birthplace of the radical Muslim group, which ruled this country and protected Osama bin Laden until it was ousted by the U.S.-led military invasion of 2001.

Pakistan

Five Pakistani soldiers and at least 21 suspected militants were killed in clashes in a region near the Afghan border where the military is pursuing Taliban insurgents fleeing a U.S.-backed offensive, authorities said Friday. The reports came a day after officials said 61 suspected militants died in airstrikes in the same region. The clashes occurred when security forces were trying to recapture a checkpoint taken Thursday night by militants in the Kalaya area of Orakzai. On Thursday, jet fire rained down in the Mamuzai area of Orakzai, targeting a religious seminary, a mosque and a school.

Russia

The United States and Russia have reached an agreement on “all documents” necessary to sign a new nuclear arms treaty, a senior Kremlin official said Wednesday, and the White House said the two nations are “very close” to signing it. Czech officials announced that Prague will host the signing of the new U.S.-Russian treaty to reduce long-range nuclear weapons that would replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. They did not give a date.

Columbia

A car bomb exploded in the administrative center of Colombia‘s Pacific port of Buenaventura on Wednesday, killing six people and wounding more than 30, authorities said. Buenaventura is a key cocaine trafficking center that is rife with rival criminal bands from the right and left. Outgoing President Alvaro Uribe has put the rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia on the defensive since taking office in 2002. But the group known as the FARC remains capable of damaging attacks and in recent months it has stepped up raids on military posts in Valle del Cauca in particular.

Weather

A yellow haze descended across Nigeria, blotting out the sun, canceling airline flights and coating everything with a fine layer of dust. The sudden storm comes from the harmattan, a yearly trade wind that brings dust from the Sahara Desert through Nigeria and the rest of West Africa. This year, however, the harmattan has come at an abnormal time. Experts say it may delay the rainy season in Africa‘s most populous nation and there are worries it may even throw off future seasonal changes.

A spring snowstorm that whipped though Colorado left the state a slushy mess Wednesday, with thousands stuck at Denver’s airport or left without power or schools. The heavy snowmaker dumped more snow than even some spring break ski vacationers bargained for. The snowstorm was no surprise for Colorado residents; March is the state’s snowiest month. But the storm that piled about 9 inches of mushy snow in Denver — and up to 23 inches in Denver’s western suburbs — shut down business for many.

Residents in northern New Jersey who started cleaning up from days of flooding are braced for more Tuesday after a night of heavy rain. However, it may be days before some of the rivers that forced hundreds from their homes could flood again. The National Weather Service has issued a flood warning for the Passaic River at Pine Brook and Little Falls. There also are flood warnings posted for the Wanaque River at Wanaque Dam in Passaic County, the Rockaway River at Boonton in Morris County, and along the Pequannock River below Macopin Dam in Morris and Passaic counties.

March 23, 2010

Health Bill Spreads Pain, Benefits

Unlike most of the laws Congress passes each year, the massive health care bill is destined to affect nearly all American families. Poor adults will get Medicaid. Low-income families will get federal subsidies to buy insurance. Small businesses will get tax credits. Children will be able to stay on parents’ policies until they turn 26. Seniors will gain additional prescription-drug coverage. People with medical conditions will gain peace of mind because insurers have to cover them.

On the other hand, the wealthy will pay higher taxes to help finance the 10-year, roughly $940 billion cost. Businesses with 50 or more workers will have to insure them or pay a penalty. Individuals, too, will have to pay a fine if they don’t buy insurance. Premiums could rise for some people. Seniors with Medicare Advantage policies could lose those plans or pay more to keep them.

The Congressional Budget Office projects that millions will remain uninsured by refusing to comply with the new mandate, or because the new federal assistance just isn’t enough. Yet nearly all of us will feel the impact of the 2,407-page bill and its 153-page package of corrections that is likely to gain final Senate approval this week.

  • However, the biggest problems are an increase in our already astronomical debt and socialistic governmental control over our daily lives

Flood of Lawsuits Coming Against Obamacare

Congress will be accused in a coming flood of lawsuits of trashing the Constitution through President Obama’s plan to nationalize health care, according to several groups that already have cases in the works. The question will be reduced to whether the federal government has the authority to demand that Americans pay for a government-specified health insurance – and it likely will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. “The individual mandate … is going to be the focus of a lot of litigation,” Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice told WorldNetDaily. Richard Thompson, president of the Thomas More Law Center, agreed, telling WND among the primary questions that need to be resolved is whether the government can mandate citizens to purchase or obtain health insurance by federal fiat. “It is a dangerous precedent,” he said.

Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund also were on top of a related situation, moving forward in four different lawsuits to ensure that conscience protections – the right to decide a procedure is objectionable and to not perform it – is maintained for doctors, nurses, pharmacists and others. And according to Liberty Counsel, “The threat to liberty posed by the health-care bill goes beyond health care. If Congress can get away with this expansive power grab, then individual liberty and state sovereignty will vanish. “This political power grab will push the country to financial ruin. The bill funds abortion, destroys liberty, and is patently unconstitutional,” the group said.

States Move to Block Obamacare’s Unfunded Mandate

Less than 24 hours after the House gave final approval to a sweeping overhaul of healthcare, attorneys general from several states on Monday said they will sue to block the plan on constitutional grounds. Republican attorneys general in 11 states warned that lawsuits will be filed to stop the federal government overstepping its constitutional powers and usurping states’ sovereignty. States are concerned the burden of providing healthcare will fall on them without enough federal support. Ten of the attorneys general plan to band together in a collective lawsuit on behalf of Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Washington. The Republican attorneys general say the reforms infringe on state powers under the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

IRS is Health Reform Enforcer, but Lacks Authority

The health care reform bill to be signed Tuesday by President Obama would give the IRS a new mandate to enforce some of the initiative’s key provisions — but apparently not the means to do so. Under the Senate bill approved Sunday by the House, the Internal Revenue Service would be called on to ensure Americans are obtaining health care insurance and businesses are offering it, or else they could face fines. t will cost the IRS $5 billion to $10 billion over 10 years to handle the new workload, according to a March 11 estimate by the Congressional Budget Office. But the Senate bill doesn’t provide any funding for the expansion of the IRS, and it virtually ties the hands of the IRS to collect fees on individuals and businesses who don’t buy health insurance.

“The use of liens and seizures otherwise authorized for collection of taxes does not apply to the collection of this penalty,” according to the non-partisan Joint Committee on Taxation. “Non-compliance with the personal responsibility requirement to have health coverage is not subject to criminal or civil penalties under the code and interest does not accrue for failure to pay such assessments in a timely manner.” That means there’s virtually nothing the IRS can do to enforce the fines in the legislation.

  • Soon there will be a subsequent emergency bill to fund and empower the IRS for this new duty. An expanded IRS is the last thing we need.

House Boosts College Aid for Needy Students

Riding the coattails of a historic health care vote, the House on Sunday also passed a broad reorganization of college aid that affects millions of students. The bill rewrites a four-decades-old student loan program, eliminating its reliance on private lenders and uses the savings to direct $36 billion in new spending to Pell Grants for students in financial need. The bill was paired with the expedited health care bill, a marriage of convenience that helped the prospects of each measure. The Senate will take up the bill next week under the same expedited rules used for health care legislation. That means the Senate can pass the education measure by a simple majority, virtually guaranteeing its success despite qualms from some Democrats and opposition from Republicans.

  • Eliminating “reliance on private lenders” is yet another step toward more socialistic government control – and the $36 billion in new spending further exacerbates the debt crisis

More Cities Ban Digital Billboards

As the USA cracks down on texting while driving, more than a dozen cities around the nation have banned what some consider a growing external driving distraction: digital billboards. Digital billboards change images every four to 10 seconds, flashing multiple messages from one or more advertisers on the same sign. Several communities have banned digital billboards outright, the most recent being Denver earlier this month. Other places have put a moratorium on them pending a federal study on whether they distract drivers. At least two other cities and two states are studying moratoriums.

Money Woes Bury ACORN

The once mighty community activist group ACORN announced Monday it is folding amid falling revenues — six months after video footage emerged showing some of its workers giving tax tips to conservative activists posing as a pimp and prostitute. “It’s really declining revenue in the face of a series of attacks from partisan operatives and right-wing activists that have taken away our ability to raise the resources we need,” ACORN spokesman Kevin Whelan said. Congress reacted by yanking ACORN’s federal funding, private donors held back cash and scores of ACORN offices closed.

  • Good bye and good riddance

Israel

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the annual AIPAC policy conference on Monday that Israeli settlement construction “undermines America’s unique ability to play a role” in the Middle East peace process and that the “status quo is unsustainable.” Speaking this morning before thousands of members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Clinton insisted that “new construction in east Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides want and need.” This is not “a judgment on the final status of Jerusalem, which is an issue to be settled at the negotiating table,” she said.

  • God does not negotiate. Jerusalem belongs to Him, not to be split with Allah (Satan)

Greece

German reluctance over bailing out Greece has raised the chances that the debt-laden country will be forced to turn to the International Monetary Fund for assistance, possibly by the end of this week. French and Luxembourg politicians said Monday that EU nations are now discussing a combination of bilateral loans from individual eurozone countries who want to contribute — and IMF aid for Greece if it needs it. The unusually public divide between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU officials backed by France over how to help Greece has kept investors on edge ahead of an EU leaders’ meeting Thursday.

Iraq

Seven years after the invasion, the reconstruction of Iraq has taken longer and cost more than initial estimates, but U.S. officials say money spent training Iraqi security forces has started to show results and has helped protect American investments. Although some results, such as oil production, have fallen short of early estimates, other projects, such as sewage treatment, have exceeded initial goals. Overall, the United States has spent $44.6 billion in taxpayer funds on rebuilding Iraq, about half of it to train, equip and support Iraq’s military and police forces. Reconstruction projects were slowed by the explosion of civil strife in Iraq in the early post-invasion years and by problems of mismanagement and poor coordination among U.S. agencies, according to Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen. He estimates that the U.S. wasted about $4 billion.

Afghanistan

The U.N. refugee agency says the number of Afghans applying for asylum jumped dramatically last year, making them the biggest population seeking refuge. A spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says there were 26,800 applications from Afghans, up 45% from 18,500 the previous year. Melissa Fleming says “the ongoing violence in Afghanistan is steadily driving Afghans from their homes” and causing more of them to seek safety in Europe and elsewhere. The agency said Tuesday that 24,000 Iraqis and 22,600 Somalis applied for asylum in 2009.

Burma

Mission News Network reports that Burmese army’s policy of ethnic cleansing continues to spread among the Karen minority in Burma. Many in the Karen demographic are Christians, marking them as a greater target for the junta. “We could see, in the next couple of months or a year, a huge genocide of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people slaughtered,” said Patrick Klein of Vision Beyond Borders, “because the government wants to present this image that everybody in Burma is supportive of the military government; that is not true,” says Klein. “The only ones that support it are the military.” According to Klein, more than 500,000 Karen people have died at the hands of the military or for lack of medical care afterwards. “It’s surpassing what happened in Rwanda and Darfur,” he said, “and yet nobody seems to notice.”

Earthquakes/Volcanoes

Blasts of lava and ash shot out of a volcano in southern Iceland on Monday and small tremors rocked the ground, a surge in activity that raised fears of a larger explosion at the nearby Katla volcano. Residents of 14 farms nearest to the eruption site were told to stay away. Iceland sits on a large volcanic hot spot in the Atlantic‘s mid-oceanic ridge. Eruptions, common throughout Iceland’s history, are often triggered by seismic activity when the Earth‘s plates move and when magma from deep underground pushes its way to the surface.

Weather

Sandstorms whipping across China shrouded cities in an unhealthy cloud of sand and grit Monday, with winds carrying the pollution outside the mainland as far as Hong Kong and Taiwan. It was the latest sign of the effects of desertification: Overgrazing, deforestation, urban sprawl and drought have expanded deserts in the country’s north and west. The shifting sands have gradually encroached onto populated areas and worsened sandstorms that strike cities, particularly in the spring. Winds blowing from the northwest have been sweeping sand across the country since Saturday. The sand and dust were carried to parts of southern China and even to cities in Taiwan, 1,600 miles away from Inner Mongolia where much of the pollution originated.

March 22, 2010

Congress Passes Healthcare Bill

Congress completed action Sunday night on the major portion of President Obama‘s top priority, a historic restructuring of the nation’s health care system that has eluded his predecessors for more than a century. The 219-212 House vote, coming after a tumultuous day of protests and rancorous debate, paves the way for Obama to sign into law most of his 10-year, $940 billion plan within the next few days. The House also approved a package of changes to the bill by a 220-211 vote shortly before midnight and sent it to the Senate for final action, perhaps later this week.

Democrats who provided all 219 votes cheered “Yes we can” when the needed votes were cast, assuring that about 32 million Americans will gain health insurance coverage and millions more will win protections against losing theirs. The legislation will raise taxes, largely on the wealthy, and reduce future Medicare spending by about $500 billion. Republicans who voted unanimously against the health care overhaul, along with 34 Democrats, predicted it would come back to bite Democrats at the polls — and in the form of repeal efforts as soon as next year.

Abortion Deal Ensures Votes for Health Care

At 4 p.m. ET Sunday, hours after the debate had begun on the floor of the House, opponents of publicly-funded abortion announced that the seven Democratic holdouts had reached a deal with the White House and would vote in favor of the bill. Their decision ensured that the Democrats would have the votes to pass it. “We’ve always said we were for health care reform, but there was a principle that was more important,” Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich said. The last-minute compromise? A promise that after the health care bill passed, Obama would sign an executive order affirming that it would not result in any government funding for abortions. Reaction was swift: Republican abortion opponents, including the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), called the deal a sham; NARAL Pro-Choice America criticized politicians for bargaining with abortion rights.

  • A promise from Obama who has already broken most of his campaign promises? Virtually worthless.

Arizona Democrats Risk Re-election by Voting for Healthcare Reform

Arizona’s three most moderate congressional Democrats voted Sunday for a sweeping health-care-reform bill, setting themselves up for even tougher re-election fights in districts already considered vulnerable to a Republican takeover. Reps. Gabrielle Giffords, Ann Kirkpatrick and Harry Mitchell were among the 219 Democrats who voted to pass the historic bill, which is projected to extend coverage to 32 million Americans by 2019 and cost $938 billion over 10 years. All three represent so-called swing districts. Republicans believe all three ensured their defeats, but Democrats and others say they may be helped by popular portions of the bill that take effect before the elections. For example, a provision to allow parents to keep their adult children on their health insurance to age 26 would take effect immediately and should be well-received by voters.

American Center for Law & Justice Preparing Healthcare Lawsuit

The ACLJ is preparing to file a federal lawsuit challenging the flawed health care package. Those self-proclaimed pro-life Democrats put their trust in an Executive Order – subject to being rescinded by the President – a move that is not only short-sighted but does not provide the guarantees and pro-life protections secured by statutory language in a law approved by Congress. The fact remains that the actual health care bill just approved does fund abortion. The Executive Order is problematic on a number of fronts.  It is not a legislative fix and does not carry the force of Congressionally-approved legislation.  It does not supersede law.  It can be rescinded.  And, what should concern everyone:  this Executive Order places HHS Secretary Sebelius at the helm of the funding process – a cabinet member who has a long and documented history of supporting abortion.

The ACLJ is preparing legal action to challenge this measure and intend to file a lawsuit in federal court soon challenging a law that is not only wrong for America – but one with a forced mandate that penalizes Americans who choose not to participate.  That is unconstitutional, and we believe ultimately it will be overturned by the courts.

Thousands Rally for Change in Immigration Laws

An estimated crowd of 150,000 gathered on the National Mall on Sunday to demand that Congress provide a path to citizenship for America’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. Although most of Washington’s attention was on the health care debate, the noisy crowd of immigrants, church leaders, celebrities and others did their best to make their point heard. They chanted “¡Si, se puede!” — echoing Obama’s campaign cry of “Yes, we can!” — and pressed the president to keep his promise to overhaul immigration laws. Leaders voiced support for a plan Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., presented last week. It calls for immigrants who want to obtain legal residency or citizenship to admit they broke the law by coming here and pay fines and back taxes. They would have to pass background checks and speak English. In a videotaped message to the crowd, Obama vowed support for the plan and said America’s “broken immigration system” needs to be fixed.

March 21, 2010

Catholic Rift Over Healthcare

An unusual public split between U.S. Roman Catholic bishops, nuns and hospitals over abortion in the health care overhaul could undermine the church hierarchy’s influence on the debate and give anti-abortion Democrats the political cover they need to vote for the bill. The disagreement among Catholics has to do with whether the bill would allow federal funding of abortion. The U.S. bishops believe it does and said they “regretfully” oppose the bill even though they have been pushing for health care reform for more than four decades. But the Catholic Health Association, which represents 600 hospitals, and about 60 Catholic nuns from various orders and groups disagree and are urging Congress to pass the bill.

Student Loan Revamp Tucked into Massive Health Bill

The endgame of massive pieces of legislation like the current health care/student loan bill are a politics junkie’s dream — and many a policy wonk’s nightmare. The kinds of compromises that are typically required to win last-minute votes, meet budget requirements, and get a measure over the finish line often necessitate decisions that leave nobody — even those making the choices to get the deal done — entirely satisfied. Examples abounded Thursday as Democratic Congressional leaders and White House officials unveiled the higher education portion of a compromise version of budget legislation designed to overhaul both the health care and student loan systems.

By any measure, the bill would make huge investments in higher education and college students, pouring upwards of $42 billion into Pell Grants, historically black and other minority-serving institutions, community colleges, repayment options for student loan borrowers, and college access grants. WorldNetDaily reports that the revised bill includes $569 billion in new taxes and a “whole lot” of new mandates.

  • Congress is always muddying the water by including amendments about one thing in a bill about another thing, and they wonder why their approval ratings are so low. The healthcare bill should only be about healthcare.

Rally in D.C. Denounces Obamacare

Will it soon be the U.S.S.A. – the United Socialist States of America? Tens of thousands of people descended on Washington Saturday, lining up in circles around the Capitol, in protest of a pending vote Sunday on President Obama’s trillion dollar plan that would take over health care across America. That’s some $500 billion in cuts from funding for U.S. seniors and another nearly like amount in new taxes. Critics of the reform bill cite the abortion financing the government would require, massive fines, especially against married couples, for whatever a government health czar would decide is unsatisfactory, and the general principle that nowhere in the U.S. Constitution – which sets limits on the federal government’s powers – is there an authorization to force people to buy the health-insurance program a federal bureaucrat picks out.

Needy Arizona Children Lose Health Care Coverage

This summer, Arizona will become the only state in the nation that doesn’t provide health-care coverage under a federal program to insure children of the working poor. State lawmakers last week eliminated Kids- Care, which serves nearly 39,000 children through age 18, through budget-balancing measures. The program cost the state $18 million a year, and federal funds covered $56 million. KidsCare advocates say the program’s demise will have long-term implications: Some children will no longer have access to preventive care, which could lead to more severe illnesses. Emergency rooms will see more uninsured children. Other residents will pay higher insurance premiums to cover the rising costs of the uninsured. Lawmakers who supported the budget cuts say they had no other choice.

  • Bloated governments sinking under a mountain of debt have to make severe budget cuts or raise taxes, both of which cause some group of people to howl. But when revenue doesn’t cover expenses, some nice-to-have programs need to be cut. Unfortunately, most people think they’re entitled to all sorts of governmental programs never intended by the founding fathers and framers of the Constitution.

C-Diff a Bigger Hospital Threat than MRSA?

As one superbug seems to be fading as a threat in hospitals, another is on the rise, a new study suggests. A dangerous, drug-resistant staph infection called MRSA is often seen as the biggest germ threat to patients in hospitals and other health care facilities. But infections from Clostridium difficile — known as C-diff — are surpassing MRSA infections, the study of 28 hospitals in the Southeast found. MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, are bacteria that can’t be treated with common antibiotics. They are often harmless as they ride on the skin, but become deadly once they get in the bloodstream. They enter through wounds, intravenous lines and other paths. C-diff, also resistant to some antibiotics, is found in the colon and can cause diarrhea and a more serious intestinal condition known as colitis. It is spread by spores in feces. The spores are difficult to kill with most conventional household cleaners or alcohol-based hand sanitizers, so some of the disinfection measures against MRSA don’t work on C-diff. MRSA is generally considered a more lethal threat, causing an estimated 18,000 U.S. deaths annually.

Thousands Protest War on Anniversary of Iraq Invasion

Thousands of protesters carried signs that read “Indict Bush Now” and flag-draped cardboard coffins on Saturday urging the immediate withdrawal of all troops sent into combat overseas. Protesters rallied at Lafayette Park across from the White House and then began marching through downtown seven years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Seven protesters, including activist Cindy Sheehan, were arrested after the rally. The protest — which calls for the immediate withdrawal of troops sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan— drew a smaller crowd than the tens of thousands who marched in 2006 and 2007. But organizers said many more people have become disenchanted with President Barack Obama, who has pledged to withdraw troops from Iraq, because he ordered more troops into Afghanistan.

Pope Blasts Irish Bishops, Orders Vatican Probe

Pope Benedict XVI rebuked Irish bishops Saturday for “grave errors of judgment” in handling clerical sex abuse cases and ordered an investigation into the Irish church. But he laid no blame for the problem on the Vatican‘s policies of keeping such cases secret. In a letter to the Irish faithful read across Europe amid a growing, multination abuse scandal, the pope apologized to victims but doled out no specific punishments to bishops blamed by Irish government-ordered investigations for having covered up abuse of thousands of Irish children from the 1930s to the 1990s. Hundreds of new allegations of abuse have recently come to light across Europe, including in the pope’s native Germany, where he served as archbishop in a diocese where several victims have recently come forward. One priest suspected of molesting boys while the future pope was in charge was transferred to a job where he abused more children.

  • The cause for Christ has been severely compromised by the failures of the Catholic Church – both the actual abuse as well as the way it tried to cover it up

Accusations Fly Over Panned Parenthood ‘Hot’ Girl Handout

A witness who attended the 54th session of United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women has unleashed a firestorm of controversy after reporting copies of Planned Parenthood’s teen-sex promoting guide, “Healthy, Happy and Hot,” were provided for Girl Scouts in attendance. Sharon Slater of Family Watch International and Stand for the Family was at the New York City event and found the “Hot” brochure among various materials made available on the back table. The guide itself, produced by the International Planned Parenthood Federation for young people with HIV, depicts both same-sex and opposite-sex couples, contains graphic details on “exploring” sexuality and encourages casual sex in many forms. Slater further told WND the brochures appeared again a few days later at a panel discussion for the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, or WAGGGS, of which Girl Scouts of the USA is a member organization.

Ozone Depletion Appears to have Leveled Off

There’s bad and good news from the ozone front. The bad news first: NASA scientists say that the amount of ultraviolet (UV) radiation reaching the Earth’s surface has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. The reason for the increase is a continuing decrease in the protective stratospheric ozone layer, a colorless gas located about 10 to 20 miles above the Earth. The ozone absorbs much of the ultraviolet energy from the sun that could cause skin cancer and harm living things, including plants, if it reaches the ground or oceans. The good news: The amount of the UV increase seems to have stabilized since the mid-1990s. This finding backs up other research that shows UV levels are stabilizing after countries began signing an international treaty in 1987 that limited the emissions of ozone-depleting gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Authorities Break Huge Counterfeit Goods Ring

Federal prosecutors in Maryland announced the indictments Friday of nine people on charges of smuggling 120,000 pairs of counterfeit Nike shoes and half a million counterfeit Coach handbags through the Port of Baltimore. The products were mostly made in Malaysia and China. Three U.S. citizens are charged with smuggling, trafficking counterfeit goods and money laundering. Six British citizens, four Chinese and two Malaysians also are charged. The merchandise also included thousands of counterfeit Coach and Gucci shoes, 500 counterfeit Cartier wrist watches and counterfeit Viagra pills.

Judge Rejects World Trade Center Settlement

A federal judge has rejected the settlement for 10,000 workers who became ill at the World Trade Center site after the Sept. 11 attacks and ordered that it be renegotiated. U.S. District Judge Alvin Hellerstein that the deal — $575 million to $657 million —  wasn’t big enough and that lawyers had taken too much, the Associated Press reported Friday.

Feds Must Reveal Bank Loan Info

The Federal Reserve must reveal documents identifying financial companies that received Fed loans to survive the financial crisis, a federal appeals court ruled Friday. A panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said in two separate opinions that such information isn’t automatically exempt from requests under the Freedom of Information Act. Cases were brought by News Corp.’s Fox News Network and Bloomberg. The two companies sought details about loans that commercial banks and Wall Street firms received and the collateral they put up.

  • The Federal Reserve has been too secretive and lacking in oversight, being neither federal nor holding any reserves

Can School Bus Ads Save School Budgets?

School districts have imposed all sorts of drastic cuts to save money during the down economy, canceling field trips and making parents pay for everything from tissues to sports transportation. And some have now resorted to placing advertisements on school buses. School districts say it’s practically free money, and advertisers love the captive audience that school buses provide. That’s the problem, say opponents: Children are being forced to travel to school on moving media kiosks, and the tactic isn’t much different than dressing teachers in sponsor-emblazoned uniforms.

Economic News

Regulators have shut down seven banks in five states, bringing to 37 the number of bank failures in the U.S. so far this year. The bank failures this year follow the 140 that succumbed in 2009 to mounting loan defaults and the recession. The bank failures have sapped billions of dollars out of the federal deposit insurance fund. It fell into the red last year, hitting a $20.9 billion deficit as of Dec. 31. Depositors’ money — insured up to $250,000 per account — is not at risk, with the FDIC backed by the government.

Haiti

One of the heaviest rainfalls since Haiti‘s Jan. 12 earthquake swamped homeless camps Friday, sweeping screaming residents into eddies of water, overflowing latrines and panicking thousands. The overnight downpour sent water coursing down the slopes of a former golf course that now serves as a temporary home for about 45,000 people. Aid workers said people were swept screaming into eddies of water and flows that ripped down tents. Standing water and mud also pervaded a tarp-and-tent city on the outskirts of Cite Soleil, several miles away.

Israel

Israel has no intention of backing down in its argument with the United States over Israeli plans to build 1,600 apartments on disputed land in largely Arab East Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday. “Our policy regarding Jerusalem is the same as it was over the past 42 years. We have made it clear to the Americans that for us, building there is just like building in Tel Aviv,” Netanyahu said. Israel captured the land in question in the spring of 1967, nearly 43 years ago.

Iraq

Iraq‘s president on Sunday called for a recount in this month’s parliamentary elections, which have turned into a tight race between the prime minister and a secular rival amid accusations of fraud. A new count could further extend political wrangling in the contentious race. The demands are the latest twist to an election that will determine who will govern the country as U.S. troops go home. Counting since the March 7 vote has been slow and plagued with confusion and disarray, fueling claims of fraud, though international observers have said the vote and count have been fair. The latest partial results, released Saturday, showed al-Maliki’s secular Shiite challenger, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, pulling ahead again by a slim margin over the prime minister’s coalition in the overall tally. However, al-Maliki is winning in seven of Iraq’s 18 provinces, which is significant because parliament seats are allotted based on the outcome of voting in each province.

Iran

In a fresh appeal directly to the Iranian people, President Obama says in an online video that the United States wants more educational and cultural exchanges for their students and better access to the Internet to give them a more hopeful future. In the video, the second of his presidency directed at Iran, Obama said that the United States’ offer of diplomatic dialogue still stands but that the Iranian government has chosen isolation. The White House released the video late Friday, timing it, as it did last year, to coincide with Nowruz, a 12-day holiday celebrating the arrival of spring and the beginning of the new year on the Persian calendar.

  • Obama still hasn’t realized that the people in Islamic countries hold very little power or influence

Mexico

More Americans in Mexico are falling victim to a wave of drug violence sweeping the country, a change driven home by the recent killing of a U.S. Consulate employee and her husband who were gunned down after leaving a children’s birthday party. The number of U.S. citizens killed in Mexico has more than doubled to 79 in 2009 from 35 in 2007, according to the U.S. State Department’s annual count. No figures were available for the first two months of 2010. In Ciudad Juarez, the northern border city hardest hit by drug violence and where the consulate employee was killed, homicides of Americans rose to 23 in 2009 from two in 2007. American deaths make up only a tiny fraction of Mexico’s 17,900 drug-related killings since December 2006, when President Felipe Calderon launched a military-led drug war.

Volcanoes

A volcano erupted near a glacier in southern Iceland, shooting ash and molten lava into the air and forcing the evacuation Sunday of hundreds of people from nearby villages. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, but a state of emergency was declared and scientists feared the eruption could trigger a larger and potentially more dangerous eruption at the Katla volcano. Saturday’s eruption, which occurred just before midnight (8 p.m. ET), came weeks after a series of small earthquakes.

  • Increased volcanic activity is another end-time sign

Weather

China‘s capital, Beijing, woke up to orange-tinted skies Saturday as the strongest sandstorm so far this year hit the country’s north, delaying some flights at Beijing‘s airport and prompting a dust warning for Seoul, South Korea. The sky glowed and a thin dusting of sand covered Beijing, causing workers to muffle their faces in vast Tiananmen Square. The city’s weather bureau gave air quality a rare hazardous ranking. China’s expanding deserts now cover one-third of the country because of overgrazing, deforestation, urban sprawl and drought. The shifting sands have led to a sharp increase in sandstorms — the grit from which can travel as far as the western United States.

About 60,000 homes are without power, trees and signs have blown over and boats have been smashed on the rocks after a massive storm blew across the coast of northeastern Australia. Tropical Cyclone Ului crossed the coast at Airlie Beach as a category three storm early Sunday with winds up to 124 miles per hour.

A late-winter storm is brought 7-12 inches of snow and cold that canceled classes for several Colorado school districts and made for a slick drive in the mountains. Multiple accidents Friday morning closed westbound Interstate 70 at Morrison, west of Denver.

A week-long fight against flooding neared its climax in Fargo on Sunday, with miles of sandbags and clay dikes expected to hold back the bloated Red River at its crest with room to spare. City officials and residents were on the brink of declaring victory and ready to move out of flood fighting mode.

March 19, 2010

Dems Sweeten Health-Care Bill

With historic health-care change in the balance, Democrats plowed fresh billions into insurance subsidies for consumers on Thursday and added a $250 rebate for seniors facing high prescription-drug costs, last-minute sweeteners to sweeping $940 billion legislation headed for a climactic weekend vote. President Barack Obama scuttled an Asian trip in favor of last-minute lobbying at the White House on his signature issue, playing host to a procession of wavering Democrats seeking favors. The bill is presumed to expand health care to 32 million uninsured people, bar the insurance industry from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions, and trim federal deficits by an estimated $138 billion over the next decade.

Beginning in 2014, most Americans would be required for the first time to purchase insurance and face penalties if they refused. Millions of families with incomes up to $88,000 a year would receive government help to defray their costs. Large businesses would face fines if they did not offer good-quality coverage to their workers. Republicans have attacked it relentlessly as a government takeover of the health-care industry financed by ever higher Medicare cuts and tax increases, including a new Medicare payroll tax on upper-income earners.

  • More government, more socialism, more debt, more entitlements. Pray hard.

Health-Care ‘Trickery’ is Overthrow of Constitution

The House voted 222-203 Thursday to allow Democrats to use “Slaughter Solution” to bypass Article 1, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution. America’s system of government based on the U.S. Constitution is being overthrown through illegal legislative “trickery” Congress is using to pass controversial health-care reform. That’s the conclusion of some on the political right who are calling for the impeachment of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi along with the defeat of the health legislation. At issue is the possibility that reforms pushed by President Obama and other Democrats will be approved without ever actually having a direct vote, but could be “deemed” to have been passed, then signed into law by Obama. The process is called the “Slaughter Strategy,” named for Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Rules Committee. Discussing the need for this procedure, Pelosi said: “I like it, because people don’t have to vote on the Senate bill.” Indeed, Democrats could actually vote for the rule, yet still claim they’re against the Senate bill.

President Obama is not worried — and doesn’t think Americans should worry — about the “procedural” debate over whether House Democratic leaders should go ahead with a plan to approve health care reform without a traditional vote, he told Fox News on Wednesday.  The president, in an interview with Fox News’ Bret Baier, responded for the first time to the controversy over a plan to use a parliamentary maneuver to allow the House to pass the Senate’s health care bill without forcing members to vote for it directly. “I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what the procedural rules are in the House or Senate,” Obama said. The health-care portions of the bill would affect nearly every American and remake one-sixth of the national economy.

  • Any doubts that our government is broken have been answered by this despicable, unconstitutional plan

Questions Swirl Around U.N.’s Climate Auditors

A little-known group called the InterAcademy Council has been made the voice of authority on the credibility of climate change, leaving critics scratching their heads — and some key questions unanswered. Acknowledging the rising tide of public skepticism toward global warming, the United Nations announced on March 10 that the IAC would act as an independent reviewer for its climate-science arm, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But a week later, the IAC remains a mystery, and it still hasn’t explained who will be on the review panel or how the panel will operate. And if it knows, it isn’t saying. “The IAC expects to begin its IPCC review shortly and issue a report by August 31.

  • The globalists will also resort to trickery in trying to rescue sinking support for global climate controls

Drug Smugglers Invading Tribal Lands

Cartels increasingly are using U.S. tribal lands to move or grow their illicit crop. The federally protected Indian reservations are an attractive lure to drug gangs because they’re often vast, sparsely populated and off limits to local law enforcement. The southern border of the sprawling desert tribal land of the Tohono O’Odham reservation in Arizona is fenced in by 75 miles of steel and cable, erected to keep out drug runners, cartel operatives and bandidos that wander up from Mexico. However, keeping the bad element off the reservation is often like trying to hold water with an open hand, says Sgt. Vincent Garcia of the Tohono O’odham Nation Police Department. In one recent week, tribal police investigated a fatal car accident, a body found on a mountain trail and an alleged rape. All were linked to the illicit human and drug smuggling routes slicing through their land.

GAO Report Scolds EPA

During the past decade, the Environmental Protection Agency’s commitment to keeping children safe from toxic chemicals has lapsed, and top officials routinely ignored scores of recommendations by the agency’s own children’s health advisory committee, according to a report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office. The GAO report documents a “reduced emphasis on children” throughout the EPA and “high-level” failures to ensure that the interests of children were considered when the agency acted. The problems “are setting the stage for an overwhelming wave of disease and disability … in the coming decades.” Of particular concern: the lack of information about thousands of chemicals and how they interact with each other.

More American Generations Bunking Together

More people than ever before are bunked together in multigenerational households across the USA as a record 49 million (16.1% of the population) share close quarters either permanently or temporarily, a report today by the Pew Research Center shows. Since 1980, the share of Americans living in such households jumped 33%. That represents a sharp reversal from earlier recent trends in which children grew up, left home and didn’t return except for a visit, and grandparents retired to sunny spots or stayed put in their own homes. From 1940 to 1980, Pew found that the proportion of people living in multigenerational households had declined by more than half — from 25% in 1940 to 12% in 1980. Now, about one in five Americans 25-34 and one in five of those 65 and older live in households in which at least two adult generations, or a grandparent and at least one other generation, share the same roof, Pew found.

Arizona Parks Future in Doubt

Arizona’s parks system is limping into the next fiscal year with few assurances it will exist after June 30, the result of lawmakers reducing its budget by nearly 80 percent since 2007. Lawmakers cut an additional $3.9 million in the special session that adjourned Tuesday. Efforts to save the system through legislation have stalled. And while discussions continue, parks continue to close. In 2007, the system included 30 parks and recreation areas and had a budget of $66 million. The system draws more than 2 million annual visitors, and a Northern Arizona University study put its economic benefit to state and local governments at $266 million a year. But after a series of cuts, including the $3.9 million in fund transfers approved Tuesday, the system’s budget is roughly $15 million. By June 30, officials expect to operate just nine parks – and that’s only if they can get a loan from the state.

Economic News

New claims for unemployment insurance fell 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 457,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. However, the four-week average, which smooths out fluctuations, has increased by 30,000 since the start of this year. That’s raised concerns among economists that persistent unemployment could weaken the recovery.

The consumer price index was flat last month, as the weak economy limited the ability of companies to charge more for goods and services. A rise in food prices last month was offset by a drop in gasoline and other energy costs. The Labor Department’s CPI report indicates there is little sign of inflation, which enables the Federal Reserve to keep the short-term interest rate it controls at a record low in an effort to revive the economy.

The Conference Board, a private research group, says its gauge of future economic activity rose 0.1% in February, suggesting slow economic growth this summer. The gain in the index of leading economic indicators was the smallest in 11 months.

Banks weren’t the only ones giving big bonuses in the boom years before the worst financial crisis in generations. The government also was handing out millions of dollars to bank regulators, rewarding “superior” work even as an avalanche of risky mortgages helped create the meltdown. The payments, detailed in payroll data released to The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act, are the latest evidence of the government’s false sense of security during the go-go days of the financial boom. Some government regulators got tens of thousands of dollars in perks, boosting their salaries by almost 25%.

A record number of hotels are defaulting on mortgage payments. Hundreds have been taken over in foreclosures, and some have closed or are about to. In January, U.S. hotels had a record-low 45.1% occupancy rate — the lowest January ever recorded. Last year’s rate — 54.8% — was previously the lowest on record.

U.S. motorists are paying the highest prices for gas since October 2008. The nationwide average hit $2.81 per gallon Thursday. Prices have now jumped 20 cents in the past month and are 87.9 cents higher than year-ago levels. The Energy Department and many industry experts expect prices to top $3 this spring. Gasoline prices tend to move higher in the spring as more drivers hit the road and refiners prepare to make more expensive summer blends of gasoline with fewer smog-causing emissions.

The U.S. trade deficit widened in the fourth quarter, reflecting an improving economy, but the imbalance for all of 2009 fell to the lowest point in eight years. Economists believe the deficit will increase in 2010 but not return to the record heights seen before the recession. The Commerce Department said Thursday the deficit in the October-December quarter jumped 12.9% to $115.6 billion as imports of oil, autos and other foreign products outpaced the gains in U.S. exports. For the year, the deficit in the current account plunged 40.5% to $419.9 billion, the smallest imbalance since 2001.

  • While it is good news that the trade deficit decreased in 2009, $420 billion is still a large deficit that puts more dollars in foreign pockets (largely China and Japan)

Middle East

A rocket fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip killed a man inside Israel Thursday, Israeli medics said, in the first death from such an attack since Israel’s Gaza offensive last year. Such rocket fire was once common but has become rare since the Israeli military’s campaign in the Gaza Strip last year, which aimed to bring an end to the attacks. Thursday’s attack came on the same day as a visit to Gaza by Europe’s top diplomat, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, the first such visit by a senior official in more than a year. A small Islamist faction calling itself Ansar al-Sunna claimed responsibility for the rocket.

Masked Arab youths engaged in violent clashes with Israeli police in several Arab neighborhoods of east Jerusalem on Tuesday, after Palestinian leaders had called for a ‘day of rage’ to protest the rededication of the historic Hurva synagogue in the Old City.

Russia

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that American and Russian negotiators are “on the brink” of agreement on a nuclear arms reduction treaty. After meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Clinton said she expects a treaty-signing soon, although she mentioned no date or place. “Our negotiating teams have reported that they have resolved all of the major issues and there are some technical issues that remain,” she said at a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. “But we are on the brink of seeing a new agreement between the United States and Russia,” Clinton added.

Iraq

Iraqi officials say a roadside bomb and a gun attack have killed four people and wounded seven others in Baghdad. The officials say the roadside bomb went off Friday morning near a market in Baghdad’s teeming Shiite district of Sadr City. The officials say the bomb was hidden under a heap of trash and detonated as shoppers started arriving. The attacks come as Iraq is still counting the ballots from the March 7 parliamentary elections.

Afghanistan

Attacks on U.S. and allied forces with makeshift bombs in Afghanistan are 50% more lethal than three years ago, reflecting insurgents’ use of more powerful explosives and the increased vulnerability of troops who patrol more on foot than in the past. Overall, IED attacks have doubled over the past year in Afghanistan. This year, insurgents planted 721 bombs compared with 291 last year. Those attacks killed or wounded 204 troops this February compared with 51 in February 2009.

Egypt

Compass Direct News reports that a mob of enraged Muslims attacked a Coptic Christian community in a coastal town in northern Egypt last weekend. The group wreaked havoc for hours and injured 24 Copts before security forces contained them. The March 12 violence erupted after the sheikh of a neighborhood mosque allegedly incited Muslims over a loudspeaker, proclaiming jihad against Christians in Marsa Matrouh, 200 miles west of Alexandria. The angry crowd hurled rocks at the district church, Christians and their properties, looted homes and set fires that evening. The mob was reportedly infuriated over the building of a wall around newly-bought land adjacent to the Reefiya Church building. The building also houses a clinic and community center. “I was very surprised by the degree of hatred that people had toward Christians,” said a reporter for online Coptic news source Theban Legion, who visited Reefiya after the attack.

Mexico

In these dark times, the faithful still come to worship in the chapel of Jesus Malverde, Mexico‘s patron saint of drug traffickers. They kneel in front of his statue, dip flowers in water and wipe them tenderly over his face. They leave cryptic notes of thanks on the altar. They slip offerings into a donation box and buy talismans that say: “Malverde, bless my path and permit my return.” “People need faith more now than ever,” Jesus González, chapel caretaker, said. “We’re getting more people here because they want to be protected.” The veneration of Malverde, a Robin Hood-style bandit who died in 1909, shows how deep the tradition of drug smuggling runs in Mexican culture — and how hard it will be to stamp out, said Tomas Guevara, a sociologist at the Autonomous University of Sinaloa.

  • Sad, sick. Praying to demons, a blasphemy rooted in the Catholic church

Cuba

Uniformed Cuban security agents prevented the mothers and wives of dissidents from marching on the outskirts of the capital on Wednesday to demand release of their loved ones, shoving them into a bus when they lay down in the street in protest. It was the second day in a row that a peaceful opposition march by the Damas de Blanca — or “Ladies in White” — degenerated into a shouting match, raising tension a day ahead of the anniversary of a major crackdown on dissent. The group is made up of female relatives of some of the 75 dissidents arrested in a sweeping government operation on or around March 18, 2003. Some 53 of the dissidents remain jailed, many of them sentenced to decades in jail.

Nigeria

Christian Solidarity Worldwide reports that religiously-tinged violence continued in Nigeria on Wednesday, when 12 people were killed. Six women, four children and two men in Byei village near the city of Jos were attacked by Fulani Muslims, just over a week after around 500 Christians were massacred with machetes by a similar group of attackers. Most of the victims were attacked in their beds. One women and her son had their tongues cut out, while another was burnt alive in her home along with her two young children. Four further victims were hospitalized, two with gunshot wounds allegedly from AK 47s, and the others with machete wounds. Twelve houses were also burnt in last night’s attack, which took place 4 kilometers away from Riyom Local Government Council. Victims say some attackers were dressed in military uniforms.

Christian Post reports that Christian foster parents expelled from the country last week have publicly launched an appeal to the Moroccan government, hoping to be reunited with their foster children. Morocco accused Village of Hope workers last Monday of proselytizing and demanded they leave the country immediately. The foster parents, who cannot legally adopt their foster children in Morocco, left behind 33 orphaned and abandoned children. “In doing this we are not trying to shame Morocco or the people,” said Herman Boonstra, director of Village of Hope, according to the Gibraltar Chronicle. “We simply want to be reunited with our children and we are worried about their welfare.” Many of the children didn’t remember any other parents. “The eviction process was the most painful situation imaginable and was one of the hardest experiences of my life,” Boonstra said.

March 17, 2010

Survey: Less than Half Link Easter to the Resurrection

Religion News Service reports that less than half of U.S. adults link Easter directly to the Resurrection of Jesus, even though most describe Easter as a religious holiday. According to a Barna Group survey, seven in 10 respondents mentioned religion or spirituality in their response to an open-ended question about how they describe what Easter means to them personally. But just 42 percent tied Easter to the Resurrection. At 73 percent, baby boomers (ages 45 to 63) were the most likely to describe Easter as a religious holiday, compared to two-thirds of those ages 26 to 44 and Americans 64 and older. The youngest group of adults (ages 18 to 25) were least likely, at 58 percent, to use that kind of description. “The Easter holiday in particular still has a distinctly religious connection for people but … the specifics of it are really fading in a lot of people’s minds,” said David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group.

A Call to God from the Nation’s Capital

While the nation is riddled with soaring debt, government expansion, abortion, declining morality and a raging culture war, Christian and Jewish leaders are urging Americans to stop shaking their fists at their television sets and come seek the real solution to today’s moral crisis by calling out to God from the nation’s capital. “May Day: a Cry to God for Our Nation in Distress” will take place May 1 from sunrise to 2 p.m. at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. They will all gather for one purpose: repentance. The group will repent for how the nation has turned from God in every area of influence: 1) business 2) government, 3) media, 4) arts and entertainment, 5) education, 6) the family and 7) religion. Faith2Action President Janet Porter, a coordinator of May Day, called on Christians to take part in a 40-day fast prior to the event. S”We just want God to know we’re serious about standing in the gap for America,” she said. “We are calling the remnant to come and repent. It’s a two-fold plan to not only pray but to proclaim what our founders believed – that we are one nation under God.”

Tea Partiers Rally on Capitol Hill

Tea Party activists from across the country rallied outside Democratic congressional offices in Washington on Tuesday to protest the $875 billion health care bill and demand meetings with their respective members of Congress. And by all appearances, their arrival is not being taken lightly. House Democrats received a formal memo from the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, listing tips for how targeted representatives should handle the crowds of activists. In addition, House phone lines were frozen Tuesday afternoon following a barrage of calls on the health care reform debate. “Kill the bill,” shouted protesters, as a string of Tea Party leaders spoke out against the massive health care overhaul. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group, attributes the Tea Party’s organized push to kill the legislation as reason for its delayed status.

Only 17% of Americans Approve of Congress

Only 17 percent of American voters approve of how lawmakers on Capitol Hill are doing their jobs and, given the choice, half of all respondents in an NBC poll would vote to defeat their own representative and every single member of Congress. It’s a striking finding revealing that a majority of Democrats are sour on their party even as it controls all three branches of government. The public also is sour on the nation’s direction. Nearly six in 10 believe the county is off on the wrong track, compared with 33 percent who think it’s headed in the right direction. Asked which one or two phrases best described their feelings about Congress, the top four responses were all negative: only interested in staying in office (37 percent), too close to special interest groups (28 percent), too partisan (19 percent) and supporting pork projects and waste (16 percent).

House Committee Fast Tracks Health Bill

A House committee has voted for fast-track rules for healthcare legislation, the first step toward a decisive floor vote on President Barack Obama’s sweeping overhaul. The 21-16 largely party-line vote in the House Budget Committee Monday was a procedural but necessary step toward getting the historic overhaul before the full House at the end of this week. The healthcare legislation has not yet been released, and the Budget Committee was voting on a shell bill. But the action set off a 48-hour countdown toward a vote by the House Rules Committee, the final step before the bill can be brought to the floor.

  • Typical, voting on a bill they haven’t read.

Cancer Care Costs Skyrocketing

The cost of cancer treatment is “skyrocketing” — both for individual patients and the nation, a new analysis shows. From 1990 to 2008, spending on cancer care soared to more than $90 billion from $27 billion. The increase was driven by the rising costs of sophisticated new drugs, robotic surgeries and radiation techniques, as well as the growing number of patients who are eligible to take them. Many older, frailer patients — who might not have been considered strong enough to weather traditional surgery — now have the option to have less invasive operations or more tightly focused radiation treatments, the analysis says. More of these patients also are able to have chemotherapy, both because of new treatments as well as “supportive” drugs to manage chemo’s side effects. From 1991 to 2002, for example, the proportion of breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy doubled, to about 24%. The cost of care for each patient also doubled, from $6,642 to $12,802, the analysis says.

Recent U.S. Terror Cases Show Evolving Threat

More than a dozen Americans have been captured or identified by the U.S. government and its allies over the past two years for actively supporting jihad, or holy war. One was a drywall contractor and father, another a petite woman who cared for the elderly, another a U.S. military officer. They underscore the new reality that there is a threat from violent Islamic extremism from within the U.S. It is difficult to say whether the uptick in cases is because law enforcement has gotten better at catching suspects or if there are simply more to catch. Most of the cases ended with suspects captured before they could act on their plans. But some were nearly ready to spring to action, like Queens resident Najibullah Zazi, 24, who pleaded guilty in February as the leader of a plot to bomb the New York subway system. And law enforcement was too late to prevent a shooting rampage in December on the military post at Fort Hood, Texas.

Abuse of Pain Pills by Soldiers Concerns Pentagon

The military is trying to curb the volume of narcotics given to troops as the number of prescriptions for painkillers and instances of drug abuse continue to soar, according to Pentagon data and recent congressional testimony. Military doctors wrote almost 3.8 million prescriptions for pain relief for servicemembers last year — more than four times the 866,773 doses handed out in 2001, according to data from the Pentagon health office. “These are stunning statistics,” says Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., who intends to look into the issue next week during a Senate subcommittee hearing that he will chair. Surgeons general of the Army, Navy and Air Force will testify.

Genetically Modified Foods Get Traction

In North America, and increasingly in South America, farmers are increasingly embracing genetically modified crops, arguing they protect the environment by decreasing pesticide use and making no-till crops (where the soil is not plowed) possible. This increases water retention and decreases erosion, and at least by some measures reduces carbon released into the atmosphere. China said it had approved biotech rice and corn varieties, which some believe could be the beginning of a broader acceptance of the 16-year-old technology. A report out last month shows that worldwide, these crops are being adopted at a blistering rate, jumping 7% last year, an increase of 22.2 million acres. By last year, biotech crops accounted for 85% to 95% of some key crops in the U.S., including soybeans and cotton.

Environmental Worries at 20-Year Low

Americans’ worries about environmental issues have hit a 20-year low, largely because of economic concerns, according to a Gallup Poll released Tuesday. Fewer adults worry “a great deal” about each of eight issues surveyed, including global warming, than a year ago. At the same time, a record number — 53% — say economic growth takes precedence, even if it hurts the environment. Also, questions about the science of global warming are affecting other issues, Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief, says. “The whole environmental realm has been politicized.”

Catholic Church Losing Latinos in USA

Latino population growth over the past two decades has boosted numbers in the Catholic Church, but a new, in-depth analysis shows Latinos’ allegiance to Catholicism is waning as some move toward other Christian denominations or claim no religion at all. A report out Wednesday by researchers at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., finds Latino religious identification increasingly diverse and more “Americanized.” “What you see is growing diversity — away from Catholicism and splitting between those who join evangelical or Protestant groups or no religion,” says report co-author Barry Kosmin. From 1990 to 2008, the Catholic Church in the USA added an estimated 11 million adults, including 9 million Latinos. In 1990, Latinos made up 20% of the total Catholic population, but by 2008, it rose to 32%.Those who claimed “no religion” rose from fewer than 1 million (6% of U.S. Latinos) in 1990 to nearly 4 million (12% of Latinos) in 2008. The estimated U.S. Latino population has more than doubled in the past two decades, from 14.6 million in 1990 to 30.9 million in 2008.

More Home Owners Leave Mortgages Behind

More Phoenix-area homeowners are walking away from their mortgage payments, and many more are likely considering it. These are not people losing homes due to severe financial problems. “Walking away” now also describes people who can make their payments but don’t want to because they owe much more than their home is worth. Metro Phoenix’s 50 percent drop in home values has left tens of thousands of homeowners here underwater, owing more than the market value of their house. Many people who bought houses during the market peak are paying mortgages double their home’s current worth. Most can’t sell now and will have to wait years before values rise enough for them to sell without taking a loss. So, many walk away.

States Streamline, Reorganize Amid Fiscal Crisis

States facing tough times are eliminating commissions, merging departments and centralizing operations to stave off budget cuts and tax hikes. The moves represent the most sweeping attempts in at least a generation to cut waste in the day-to-day operations of state government, according to government experts. “The budget crisis is so severe that it’s now possible to do some things that everyone knew were smart but couldn’t get done because of political considerations,” says John Thomasian, director of the Center for Best Practices at the National Governors Association.

Faced with a drop in gambling revenue, at least eighteen states are adding games, considering new casinos and increasing lottery options – anything to keep their cut of the profits rolling in. States are adamant that they don’t want to take advantage of anyone, but with budgets in free-fall and tax increases a losing political option, lawmakers acknowledge that they are dependent on gambling revenue.

Economic News

The Federal Reserve brightened slightly its view of the economy and labor market Tuesday but kept interest rates unchanged near zero and gave no signal that that would change anytime soon. The central bank said the economy “has continued to strengthen,” and the job market is “stabilizing.” The Fed lowers interest rates to stimulate the economy and raises them to head off inflation.

The U.S. and the U.K. have moved “substantially” closer to losing their AAA credit ratings as the cost of servicing their debt rose, according to Moody’s Investors Service. The governments of the two economies must balance bringing down their debt burdens without damaging growth by removing fiscal stimulus too quickly, Moody’s said.

The United Auto Workers and Toyota have agreed on terms to shut down the Nummi plant that employs 4,600 workers. It is California’s sole remaining auto plant. The terms weren’t disclosed Monday but include a pay package when the plant is shut down April 1. Toyota said earlier this month that it will spend $250 million assisting employees at the factory. Toyota has fallen from first to sixth place in its Perceived Quality Score since its myriad recalls began.

Housing construction fell in February as blizzards held down activity in the Northeast and South. The decline highlighted the challenges facing builders as they struggle to emerge from the worst housing slump in decades. The Commerce Department said Tuesday that construction of new homes and apartments fell 5.9% in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 575,000 units.

A price index at the wholesale level plunged in February by the largest amount in seven months as a big drop in energy prices offset higher food costs. The Labor Department said Wednesday that its wholesale inflation index dropped 0.6% in February. Excluding food and energy, prices edged up a slight 0.1%.

China retained its spot as the biggest foreign holder of U.S. Treasury debt in January even as it trimmed its holdings for a third straight month. The string of declines underscored worries that the U.S. government could face much higher interest rates to finance soaring budget deficits. The Treasury Department said Monday that China’s holdings dipped by $5.8 billion to $889 billion in January compared with December. Japan, the second-largest foreign holder of U.S. government debt, also trimmed its holdings but by a much smaller $300 million, to $765.4 billion.

Israel

Israel on Wednesday lifted its tight restrictions on Palestinian access to Jerusalem‘s holiest shrine and called off an extended West Bank closure after days of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces. While Israel moved to end the lockdown, it also kept thousands of police officers on alert as an uneasy calm settled over the holy city. The unrest was set off by persistent rumors that Jewish extremists were planning to take over the compound. The hilltop compound is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, as well as Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount, the place where the biblical Jewish temples once stood. The conflicting claims to the complex make the future of the holy city the most charged issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Obama administration’s fierce denunciation of Israel last week has ignited a firestorm in Congress and among powerful pro-Israel interest groups who say the criticism of America’s top Mideast ally was misplaced. Since the controversy erupted, a bipartisan parade of influential lawmakers and interest groups has taken aim at the administration’s decision to publicly condemn Israel for its announcement of new Jewish housing in east Jerusalem. With diplomats from both countries referring to the situation as a crisis, the outpouring of anger in the United States, particularly from Capitol Hill, comes at a difficult time for the administration, which is now trying to win support from wary lawmakers — many of whom are up for re-election this year — for health care reform and other domestic issues. And those criticizing the administration’s unusually blunt response to Israel say they fear it may have distracted from and done damage to efforts to relaunch long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Iraq

Nearly 80% of the vote has been counted, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki‘s coalition has emerged as the biggest winner in this month’s parliamentary elections. Al-Maliki’s bloc searched Tuesday for alliances to keep him atop Iraq‘s government. No candidate will come close to winning a majority of the seats in the new parliament. Maliki will have to form alliances to form a government with the prime minister’s coalition on track to win as only 104 seats in the 325-seat parliament. Ali al-Adeeb, a top member of al-Maliki’s coalition, said the vote counting process was marred by “irregularities” and the coalition has requested a recount.

The followers of Moktada al-Sadr, a radical cleric who led the Shiite insurgency against the American occupation, have emerged as Iraq’s equivalent of Lazarus in elections last week, defying ritual predictions of their demise and now threatening to realign the nation’s balance of power. Their apparent success in the March 7 vote for Parliament — perhaps second only to the followers of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as the largest Shiite bloc — underscores a striking trend in Iraqi politics: a collapse in support for many former exiles who collaborated with the United States after the 2003 invasion.

The U.S. military handed over control of a prison holding some 2,900 detainees to Iraqi authorities on Monday as the Americans move ahead with preparations for a full withdrawal by the end of 2011. Control of prisons is a sensitive issue for many Iraqis. Torture was widespread in Iraqi prisons under the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein before his fall in the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. And the scandal following the release of photos showing American troops mistreating detainees in the Abu Ghraib prison sparked outrage across Iraq and the Arab world. Iraq. Taji was the second prison to be relinquished by the U.S. as it moves to release thousands of detainees or transfer them to Iraqi custody before the end of this year according to an agreement. That leaves only one prison in Iraq in American hands.

Afghanistan

The U.S. force in Afghanistan is undergoing a major restructuring that will bring virtually all American troops under NATO command. Vice Adm. Greg Smith, the top military spokesman in Afghanistan, said the intent was to integrate most of the 20,000 U.S. troops currently serving in eastern part of the country under separate command known as Operation Enduring Freedom, into the 100,000-strong NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. NATO officials noted that the practical effect of this move will be to streamline and simplify the command structure, since both forces are already under the operational control of the senior commander in Afghanistan, USA Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

The Afghan government was holding secret talks with the Taliban‘s No. 2 when he was captured in Pakistan, and the arrest infuriated President Hamid Karzai, according to one of Karzai’s advisers. The detention of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar — second in the Taliban only to one-eyed Mullah Mohammed Omar— has raised new questions about whether the U.S. is willing to back peace discussions with leaders who harbored the terrorists behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Karzai “was very angry” when he heard that the Pakistanis had picked up Baradar with an assist from U.S. intelligence, the adviser said. Besides the ongoing talks, he said Baradar had “given a green light” to participating in a three-day peace jirga that Karzai is hosting next month.

Pakistan

An apparent U.S. missile attack destroyed a suspected militant compound in northwestern Pakistan on Tuesday, killing at least nine people, intelligence officials said. The area is the home of Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a powerful warlord whose fighters are battling U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. The CIA has stepped up missile strikes on militant positions in Pakistan’s tribal regions since December, when a suicide bomber killed seven CIA employees in neighboring Afghanistan. Suspected U.S. drones also fired missiles at vehicles and hit a militant hide-out in a tribal region of northwestern Pakistan on Wednesday, killing at least nine insurgents. In the first attack, the drones fired four missiles at a vehicle and flattened a nearby house near Miran Shah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal region, killing six militants. About 50 minutes later, drones fired three more missiles at a vehicle in Madakhel town, about 25 miles west of Miran Shah, killing three insurgents.

Mexico

Scores of police officers — including the entire department of one town — have been detained in Mexican probes of killings and kidnappings. About 90 city policemen were being held for questioning about the kidnapping of undocumented Central American migrants to shake them down for money. The officers — the town’s entire local force — were detained by state police and soldiers and taken to the capital of the Gulf coast state of Veracruz for questioning. In the central State of Mexico, prosecutors announced the arrest of two policemen and two former officers on charges they participated in 11 killings related to robberies.

  • Corruption is rampant in Mexico with drug cartels wielding more power and influence than the government

Earthquakes

A pair of earthquakes rattled coastal Chile, the U.S. Geological Survey reported. A strong 6.7-magnitude quake hit at 11:22 p.m. Monday, and a moderate 5.5-magnitude quake followed at 12:05 a.m. Tuesday. There were no immediate reports of injuries or significant damage.

A 4.4-magnitude earthquake jolted southern California early Wednesday. The quake, which hit at 4 a.m. PT,  was centered about 10 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, near Pico Rivera. There were no immediate reports of injury or damage.

Weather

Madagascar’s disaster officials say at least 36 people have died and more than 38,000 were made homeless by Tropical Storm Hubert. The storm hit the southeast coast of the Indian Ocean island nation on Wednesday. Officials also said Monday that many rice plantations, roads and homes have been affected or destroyed by flooding. Disaster officials also say that some evacuation teams cannot reach disaster victims because of flooded roads. Madagascar lies off the southeastern coast of Africa and is in the main storm path of the Indian Ocean basin.

Fiji has suffered overwhelming damage in a powerful weekend cyclone, the prime minister said Wednesday, as the first word of houses blown away, trees uprooted, and roads blocked trickled in from regions cut off since the storm. One death has been reported, but the full extent of the damage has yet to be determined because communications to the hardest hit areas were cut off for days. Cyclone Tomas, packing winds of up to 130 mph at its center and gusts of up to 175 mph, first hit Fiji late Friday.

More than a third of the contiguous USA has a higher-than-average risk of flooding in the coming months, and residents in the Midwest are likely to see the worst of it, government forecasters warned Tuesday. Devastating and potentially deadly floods are forecast across much of the central and eastern USA over the next two months. The most significant threat is forecast for the Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa, including along the Red River Valley. Crests there this week and into next week could approach the record levels set just last year.

Winter storms plastered Arizona’s high country with snow and soaked the lower deserts with rain until the ground was almost sloshing, but that was just the first half of an increasingly wet story. As temperatures rise this week, the snow will start to melt, gushing down streams and rivers into reservoirs that, in many cases, are already full. The overflow on the Salt and Verde rivers alone could exceed a year’s supply of water for Valley residents. The runoff will ease drought conditions across much of the state, rejuvenating parched forests and rangelands and replenishing groundwater aquifers. Whether the winter has ended the drought, now more than a decade old, probably won’t be known for another year or more. It’s already clear that drought conditions will persist on the Colorado River.

March 15, 2010

Lutheran Bishops Prepare to Welcome Gay Clergy

Religion News Service reports that bishops in the nation’s largest Lutheran denomination have approved preliminary steps to welcome a group of openly gay and lesbian ministers. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ECLA) Conference of Bishops approved a draft proposal on March 8 for the new liturgical rites, which include prayers and the laying on of hands by the local bishop. The proposal only applies to 17 pastors who had followed normal ELCA procedures for education and ordination, but remained barred from the denomination’s official clergy roster because of their sexuality. The clergy are all members of Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries, a group devoted to gay rights in the ELCA. Last summer, the ELCA, which has about 4.6 million members, voted to change its longtime policy barring noncelibate gays and lesbians from the pulpit. The church’s executive council is expected to vote on the proposed rites at its meeting in Chicago next month, when it is also expected to draw up new rules for other gay and lesbian clergy candidates.

  • Our mainline denominations are leading the flock on the wider path that leads to hell rather than holding fast to Biblical principles that lead through the narrow gate

Activist Cindy Sheehan Revives Anti-War Efforts

Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan is restarting her campaign against wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today, setting up tents and teaching protest seminars near the Washington Monument. Dubbed “Camp OUT NOW,” the protest is geared to pressure President Obama and Democrats, whom Sheehan says have abandoned the anti-war cause now that they have control of the White House and Congress. “Obama said there’d be one combat battalion coming home per month, and that has not happened,” Sheehan says. “We still have significant troops in Iraq, and he’s ramped up in Afghanistan. I don’t think this is what people understood they were voting for. I think they were voting for a change.”

  • This is significant not because of Sheehan, but as an example of how Obama has lost his base constituency. Turns out Obama wasn’t messiah after all, just another politician.

Education Groups Vary in Response to White House Plan

The Obama administration’s plan to make sweeping changes to the 2002 No Child Left Behind education law is getting mixed reaction among educators: Teachers unions complained that teachers are being scapegoated by the overhaul; a school board leader praised it but called for more flexibility; and an administrators group said it was just glad to see NCLB go away. The Obama administration is asking Congress to toss out the old system under NCLB in which schools either passed or failed and replace it with one that labels schools one of three ways: high-performing, needs improvement or chronically low-performing, Education Secretary Arne Duncan says.

Duncan said he will give the high performers both freedom and financial incentives to stay that way. For the USA’s lowest 5% of schools — about 5,000 — Duncan says he’ll require them to take drastic steps to improve, including firing their principal and, in some cases, at least half of their staff, as happened last month at a Rhode Island high school. That proposal could widen an administration rift with teachers unions, normally strong backers of Democratic regimes.

Voters Consider Illegal Aliens a Major Budget Burden

A recent Rasmussen poll has concluded what many struggling Americans have realized for years; voters consider illegal immigration to be one of the biggest drains on government services, and a dominant factor why so many state and local governments cannot maintain their budget projections. Two-thirds of U.S. voters believe that illegal aliens are a significant strain on the U.S. budget; that government money and services act like a magnet and draw illegal aliens to the United States; and that gaining control of the border is more important than legalizing illegal aliens

Voter Turnout for Primaries Declining

Since 1962, the percentage of eligible voters picking Democratic and Republican nominees for governor and U.S. Senate has declined to less than 10% per party. The percentages are even lower for U.S. House and state legislature primaries. Top election officials in most states are planning to launch a public-private partnership later this year to increase both voter registration and participation. Advertisers are joining with state voting officials to target the nation’s youngest voters, those ages 18-25. A new federal law to ensure that ballots cast by members of the U.S. military get counted requires states to provide a 45-day period for absentee voting. That’s forcing some states that normally hold primaries in September to move them to August — when many families are on vacation and turnout could be even lower than usual.

Congress, AZ School District Sues Taxpayers

A handful of taxpayers in a small community north of Wickenburg, Arizona are being targeted by the local school district in a lawsuit that asks a judge to declare they have no right to request public records, sue the district, or complain to outside agencies. The Congress Elementary School District claims that past efforts by these residents to obtain documents such as minutes of board meetings and spending reports amount to harassment that should not have to be tolerated. But Jean Warren, one of the four defendants named in the lawsuit filed January 28, 2010, said the complaint is an illegal attempt to silence citizens who have questioned the district’s policies and spending practices. “The whole thing is based on trying to shut us down so that nobody has any rights,” Warren said. “Just because you live in a small area does not mean you don’t have rights. Everything I believe about the Constitution and what it means to be a citizen of the USA is being shot down.”

Corporation Runs for Congress

Murray Hill is actually Murray Hill Inc., a small, five-year-old Silver Spring public relations company that is seeking office to prove a point. After the Supreme Court declared that corporations have the same rights as individuals when it comes to funding political campaigns, the self-described progressive firm took what it considers the next logical step: declaring for office. “Until now, corporate interests had to rely on campaign contributions and influence-peddling to achieve their goals in Washington,” the candidate, who was unavailable for an interview, said in a statement. “But thanks to an enlightened Supreme Court, now we can eliminate the middle-man and run for office ourselves.” William Klein, a “hired gun” who has been enlisted as Murray Hill’s campaign manager, said the firm appears to be the first “corporate person” to run for office and is promising a spirited campaign that “puts people second, or even third.” The corporate candidate already has its own Web site, a Facebook page with 2,600 fans and an online ad on YouTube that has drawn more than 172,000 hits.

  • All facetiousness aside, this new law will open the floodgates to all sorts of problems in upcoming political campaigns

Social Security Going Broke

For more than two decades, Social Security collected more money in payroll taxes than it paid out in benefits — billions more each year. Not anymore. This year, for the first time since the 1980s, when Congress last overhauled Social Security, the retirement program is projected to pay out more in benefits than it collects in taxes — nearly $29 billion more. Sounds like a good time to start tapping the nest egg. Too bad the federal government already spent that money over the years on other programs, preferring to borrow from Social Security rather than foreign creditors. In return, the Treasury Department issued a stack of IOUs in the form of Treasury bonds. Now the government will have to borrow even more money, much of it abroad, to start paying back the IOUs, and the timing couldn’t be worse. The government is projected to post a record $1.5 trillion budget deficit this year, followed by trillion dollar deficits for years to come. Social Security’s shortfall will not affect current benefits — as long as the IOUs last, benefits will keep flowing.

Economic News

Industrial production edged up 0.1% in February, beating expectations and marking the eighth monthly increase. But the key manufacturing sector produced less. The Federal Reserve reported Monday that manufacturing output, the index’s largest component, fell 0.2%; while output at mining companes and utilities increased 2.0% and 0.6%, respectively. The index’s consistent upward trend suggests economic improvement is durable, if modest.

The Obama administration’s mortgage relief plan has helped only about 16% of borrowers who signed up since its launch last year, while hundreds of thousands of homeowners remain in limbo. The Treasury Department says that as of last month, about 170,000 homeowners had completed the application process and had their loan payments reduced permanently. That compares with nearly 1.1 million homeowners who have enrolled since the plan started. The program is designed to lower borrowers’ monthly payments by reducing mortgage rates to as low as 2% for five years and extending loan terms to as long as 40 years.

China

With China’s exports soaring, even as other major economies struggle to recover from the recession, evidence is mounting that Beijing is skillfully using inconsistencies in international trade rules to spur its own economy at the expense of others, including the United States. China had a $198 billion trade surplus with the rest of the world last year, with its exports to the United States outpacing imports by more than four to one. Despite that, in the last 12 months, Beijing has filed more cases with the W.T.O.’s powerful trade tribunals in Geneva than any other country complaining about another’s trade practices. In addition, Beijing has worked to suppress a series of International Monetary Fund reports since 2007 documenting how the country has substantially undervalued its currency, the renminbi. China buys dollars and other foreign currencies — worth several hundred billion dollars a year — by selling more of its own currency, which then depresses its value. That intervention helped Chinese exports to surge 46 percent in February compared with a year earlier.

Israel

Israeli officials said Monday that the U.S. is pressing Israel to scrap a contentious east Jerusalem building project whose approval has touched off the most serious diplomatic feud with Washington in years. Tensions in the city at the center of the spat were high, with police out in large numbers in Jerusalem’s volatile Old City in expectation of renewed clashes. Top U.S. officials have lined up in recent days to condemn the Israeli plan to build 1,600 apartments in east Jerusalem, the sector of the city that the Palestinians claim for their future capital. U.S.-Israeli relations have hit a 35-year low, Israel’s envoy to Washington was quoted as saying Monday.

  • Jerusalem belongs to Israel. The Obama administration clearly supports the so-called ‘Palestinians.’ In fact, when Romans first called the area Palestine, in included many ethnic groups, including Jews.

Chile

A power failure plunged nearly the entire Chilean population into darkness Sunday night, rattling a country already anxious after last month’s 8.8-magnitude quake. Officials blamed a transformer failure that caused a ripple effect and ultimately a total collapse of the Central Interconnected System grid. Between 80% and 90% of Chile‘s 17 million people get power from the system and were affected. Officials said the blackout did not coincide with one of the dozens of powerful aftershocks that have jolted the nation since the Feb. 27 quake.

Mexico

Suspected drug gang hit men separately ambushed two cars carrying families with ties to the U.S. consulate in Ciudad Juarez, a violent border city, killing an American couple and a Mexican man. Three young children survived, although two suffered wounds. The slayings came amid a surge in bloodshed along Mexico‘s border with Texas Authorities place the blame on members of a gang of hit men allied with the Juarez drug cartel. Several U.S. citizens have been killed in Mexico’s drug war, most of them people with family ties to Mexico. It is very rare for American government employees to be targeted. The State Department noted the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City has advised American citizens to delay unnecessary travel to parts of the Mexican states of Durango, Coahuila and Chihuahua.

Afghanistan

The governor of Kandahar province demanded more security Sunday after 12 coordinated explosions in Afghanistan‘s largest southern city killed dozens of people in the Taliban heartland. The attacks around Kandahar city Saturday night included two car bombs, six suicide attackers on motorbikes and bicycles plus four homemade bombs, Gov. Tooryalai Wesa said. At least 33 people died, including 10 women and children attending a wedding celebration in a hall next to a police station that was targeted. Among the targets of Saturday night’s explosions were a newly fortified prison and police headquarters. Wesa said at least six police officers were among the dead. Kandahar province is considered the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban insurgency and is widely believed to be the next target of NATO and Afghan forces.

U.S. forces have recovered a huge cache of weapons that was given to Afghan security forces but wound up in the hands of the Taliban, a U.S. military review has found. The Afghan army and national police had lost 13,000 weapons, 200,000 rounds of ammunition, 80 vehicles. All the gear was bought for the Afghans by Americans, part of $330 million in weapons purchases.

Iraq

Partial counts from all of Iraq‘s 18 provinces show the prime minister’s bloc with the overall lead in the country’s key parliamentary elections. Iraq’s electoral commission said Sunday that Nouri al-Maliki‘s State of Law coalition is leading in eight provinces. The secular Iraqiya bloc headed by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi leads in four, while the religious Shiite Iraqi National Alliance and the main Kurdish coalition lead in three provinces each.

Thailand

Tens of thousands of red-shirted protesters rallied in Bangkok, Thailand‘s capital, Sunday to press their demand that the government dissolve Parliament or face massive demonstrations at key sites in the city. The protesters — many from the impoverished northeast and north — want Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call new elections, which they believe will allow their political allies to regain power. The crowd estimated by police at more than 100,000 rallied peacefully under a blazing sun. Many of the protesters, popularly known as the Red Shirts, back former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by a 2006 military coup for alleged corruption and abuse of power. They believe Abhisit came to power illegitimately with the connivance of the military and other parts of the traditional ruling class who were alarmed by Thaksin‘s popularity, particularly among the poor.

Nigeria

Twin explosions rocked a government building in Nigeria’s restive and oil-rich Niger Delta region Monday, only minutes after a militant group promised to attack amnesty talks being held there. Two people were injured in the bombing, which occurred at a government building in Warri. It appearsThe Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the main militant group in the region, issued a statement to reporters only minutes before the attack. The group claimed to have planted three bombs around the building. that the two bombs were placed inside cars near where a Nigerian newspaper, Vanguard, was helping hold a discussion with government officials about an amnesty deal offered to militants in the region.

Earthquakes

A strong earthquake hit off the eastern coast of central Japan on Sunday, rattling buildings across a broad swath of the country, including the crowded Tokyo capital. There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties, and the government said there was no danger from tsunamis. The quake had an initial estimated magnitude of 6.6, according to the Japan Meteorological Agency. Japan is one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries.

Weather

Tropical Cyclone Tomas battered Fiji’s northern islands on Monday evening with gusts of up to 275 km/h (170 mph) and heavy rain, but weather officials had not received immediate reports of damage. The Category 4 storm is the second-most destructive on a five-point scale. As it heads southeast, it is expected to sideswipe the main island, Viti Levu. The South Pacific nation’s capital, Suva, is on that island.

Strong winds and heavy rain pounded parts of the Northeast on Saturday, knocking out power to more than 900,000 homes and businesses and stranding about 500 passengers on a New York-bound train for more than six hours. Gusts approached 75 mph. It was the second time in two weeks that more than 500,000 homes and businesses in the Northeast were left in the dark after a powerful storm. The violent storm killed six people and disrupted countless parties, concerts and other events.

An avalanche struck a rally of up to 200 snowmobilers in Canada’s Rocky Mountains, killing at least three people and leaving an unknown number missing. Four of the injured were transferred to larger hospitals due to the severity of their injuries. The Canadian Avalanche Center issued an avalanche warning for the region, which includes Revelstoke, for Saturday and Sunday, after a powerful storm blanketed the region with snow.

March 13, 2010

Court Upholds ‘Under God’ in Pledge of Allegiance

A federal appeals court in San Francisco upheld the use of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency, rejecting arguments on Thursday that the phrases violate the principle of separation of church and state. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel rejected two legal challenges by Sacramento atheist Michael Newdow, who claimed the references to God disrespect his religious beliefs. “The Pledge is constitutional,” Judge Carlos Bea wrote for the majority in the 2-1 ruling. “The Pledge of Allegiance serves to unite our vast nation through the proud recitation of some of the ideals upon which our Republic was founded.” The same court ruled in Newdow‘s favor in 2002 after he sued his daughter’s school district for forcing students to recite the pledge.

Gilbert, AZ Forbids Bible Studies in Homes

The city of Gilbert, Ariz., has ordered a group of seven adults to stop gathering for Bible studies in a private home because such meetings are forbidden by the city’s zoning codes. The issue was brought to a head when city officials wrote a letter to a pastor and his wife informing them they had 10 days to quit having the meetings in their private home. The ban, however, prompted a response from the Alliance Defense Fund, which filed an appeal with the city as the first step in its campaign to overturn a provision it describes as illegal. “The interpretation and enforcement of the town’s code is clearly unconstitutional, ” said Daniel Blomberg, a member of the litigation team for ADF. “It bans 200,000 Gilbert residents from meeting in their private homes for organized religious purposes – an activity encouraged in the Bible, practiced for thousands of years, and protected by the First Amendment.”

There had been no complaints about the meetings, which had been rotating among members’ homes before the officer wrote the letter and ordered the group to “terminate all religious meetings … regardless of their size, nature or frequency,” because he noticed signs about the meetings. The town interprets its law so that “churches within its borders cannot have any home meetings of any size, including Bible studies, three-person church leadership meetings and potluck dinners,” ADF said.

  • Just the beginning, folks. Secularists and humanists, prodded by Satan, will do whatever they can to interfere with Christian expressions of faith.

Dems Look to Healthcare Vote Without Abortion Foes

House Democratic leaders abandoned a long struggle to appease the most ardent abortion opponents in their ranks, gambling Thursday that they can secure the support for President Obama‘s sweeping health care legislation with showdown votes looming next week. In doing so, they are all but counting out a small but potentially decisive group whose views on abortion coverage have become the principal hang-up for Democrats fighting to achieve the biggest change in American health care in generations. Democratic leaders are working to rally rank-and-file members around agreements on several complicated points, health insurance taxes and prescription drug coverage among them, and dozens of other sticky issues — all as Republicans stand ready to oppose the overhaul en masse.

US Avoids Pro-Life Debate at UN Meeting

A U.N. meeting to assess progress in advancing the fight for women’s equality that ended Friday had a dramatically different slant than a similar session held five years ago: This time, the United States was not trying to make an anti-abortion declaration a crucial theme. Much of the 2005 meeting to take stock of what countries had done to implement the landmark platform of action adopted at the 1995 U.N. women’s conference in Beijing was consumed by the Bush administration’s demand that the final declaration make clear that women are not guaranteed a right to abortion. By contrast, abortion was a non-issue during the two-week session that concluded Friday with a rousing speech by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who made just a single reference to the U.S. increasing support for family planning as part of its Global Health Initiative, which also aims to reduce maternal and child deaths and HIV infections.

  • Another example of America’s decline from grace

Senators Load Healthcare Bill with Pork

President Barack Obama says he wants projects helping specific states yanked from the health care bill Congress is writing. Democratic senators, being senators, beg to differ. The Senate-approved health measure lawmakers hope to send to Obama soon would steer $600 million over the next decade to Vermont in added federal payments for Medicaid and nearly as much to Massachusetts. Connecticut would get $100 million to build a hospital. About 800,000 Florida seniors could keep certain Medicare benefits. Asbestos-disease victims in tiny Libby, Mont., and some coal miners with black lung disease or their widows would get help, and there are prizes for Louisiana, the Dakotas and more states. Obama’s proposal to eliminate state-specific items comes with polls finding heightened public opposition to backroom political deals. Republicans have been happy to fan that discontent.

  • Re-election time is coming up this year for some Senators whose primary way to get votes is to buy them

Tea Partiers to ‘Surge’ Capitol Hill

In less than one week, more than 100,000 Americans have signed their names to a petition demanding that lawmakers resist using “reconciliation” to ram a government takeover of America’s health-care system through Congress – and those signatures will be delivered directly to lawmakers Tuesday. FreedomWorks launched its “No Reconciliation” petition on March 6. It has already collected thousands of signatures to hand deliver during its March 16 rally called the “People’s Surge Against Obamacare 2.0.” The group is urging Americans to sign their names before the petition is presented. “We the undersigned ask all senators to respect Senate tradition and resist using inappropriate ‘reconciliation’ rules to pass the health-care legislation on narrow partisan lines,” the petition states. “The traditional 60 vote threshold is meant to avoid the tyranny of the majority and is why the Senate is called the most deliberative body in the world.”

Groups Offer to Hold Canceled Prom

The Itawamba County school board Wednesday canceled the school’s planned April 2 dance after a lesbian student challenged the district’s policy against same-sex dates. As news of the board’s decision spread across the nation, Matthew Sheffield of the Mississippi Safe Schools Coalition said his office was flooded by people looking to help. “We have so many people willing to donate money, resources, time,” he said. “We are trying to figure out what we are going to do.” Constance McMillan, the 18-year-old senior who challenged the school district’s policy, and the Mississippi chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in federal court Thursday alleging the school board’s actions violated McMillen’s First Amendment rights to freedom of expression.

Sex Abuse Scandal Reaches Vatican

Germany’s sex abuse scandal has now reached Pope Benedict XVI: His former archdiocese disclosed that while he was archbishop a suspected pedophile priest was transferred to a job where he later abused children. The pontiff is also under increasing fire for a 2001 Vatican document he later penned instructing bishops to keep such cases secret. The revelations have put the spotlight on Benedict’s handling of abuse claims both when he was archbishop of Munich from 1977-1982 and then the prefect of the Vatican office that deals with such crimes — a position he held until his 2005 election as pope. After accusations of abuse connected to the Regensburg boys choir directed by the pope’s elder brother for some 30 years, the Munich archdiocese acknowledged Friday that it had transferred a suspected pedophile priest to community work while Benedict was archbishop there.

Women on Birth Control Pill May Live Longer

Women who took the birth control pill beginning in the late 1960s lived longer than those never on the pill, a new study says. Experts concluded the pill cut women’s risk of dying from bowel cancer by 38% and from any other diseases by about 12%. Doctors aren’t sure exactly why the pill may lower death rates. It contains synthetic hormones to suppress ovulation, which may have some role in preventing certain diseases.

Road Fatalities Down Sharply

Traffic deaths in the USA last year fell to levels not seen since 1954, and the fatality rate was the lowest since the federal government began tracking it in 1966, the Department of Transportation said Thursday. Highway deaths in 2009 dropped to 33,963, an 8.9% decline from 2008. Road fatalities have fallen every year since 2005, when 43,510 people died in crashes. Experts say high-unemployment is the greatest factor behind the decline in traffic fatalities. Federal officials also cited state efforts, such as the annual Click It or Ticket campaign, which has helped push seat belt usage in the United States from 67% of drivers in 1999 to 83% in 2008; drunken-driving crackdowns, which helped cut impaired-driving deaths from 15,935 — 38% of the total — in 1998, to 11,773, 32% of the total in 2008; and safer roads and vehicles.

Internet Fraud Losses, Complaints Jumped in ’09

Internet fraud losses doubled last year to more than $550 million and complaints jumped 22%, the FBI says. The Internet Crime Complaint Center logged 336,655 complaints in 2009 compared with 275,284 the year before, Reuters says. Nearly 12% involved sellers failing to ship merchandise or buyers failing to pay for it, while 10% were people who paid money upfront for rewards that never materialized. Think the cyber-crooks are mostly in Nigeria, China, Russia or other faraway places? More than 65% were in the United States. Just 8% were in Nigeria.

Ground Zero Workers Reach Deal Over Claims

A settlement of up to $657.5 million has been reached in the cases of thousands of rescue and cleanup workers at ground zero who sued the city over damage to their health, according to city officials and lawyers for the plaintiffs. They said that the settlement would compensate about 10,000 plaintiffs according to the severity of their illnesses and the level of their exposure to contaminants at the World Trade Center site. Payouts to the plaintiffs would come out of a federally financed insurance company with funds of about $1.1 billion that insures the city. At least 95 percent of the plaintiffs must accept its terms for it to take effect.

Arizona Budget Passes; Cuts Total $1.1 billion

State lawmakers delivered on Gov. Jan Brewer’s promise to end the days of “expanded government,” passing a budget Thursday that eliminates programs and cuts $1.1 billion in spending. On largely party-line votes, the Republican-controlled Legislature approved an $8.9 billion spending plan that ends a health-care program for 47,000 low- income children, removes 310,000 adults from state health coverage and cuts the funds that were one of the last best hopes for the state parks system to stay afloat. The cuts are needed, Republicans said, to bring state spending in line with its sagging revenue. Arizona faced a $2.6 billion deficit for fiscal 2011.

Democrats shot back that Brewer and the Republicans rushed through a budget that ignored alternatives that wouldn’t have cut so deeply into state services. They complained that many of the budget moves don’t merely cut off funding during the coming year but terminate programs such as KidsCare, a children’s health-care program, and local transportation funds. They argued that the permanent elimination of the programs will make it hard to bring them back when the good times return.

States May Hold onto Tax Refunds for Months

Residents eager to get their state tax refunds may have a long wait this year: The recession has tied up cash and caused officials in half a dozen states to consider freezing refunds, in one case for as long as five months. States from New York to Hawaii that have been hard-hit by the economic downturn say they have either delayed refunds or are considering doing so because of budget shortfalls. New York, hit with a $9 billion deficit, may delay $500 million in refunds to keep the state from running out of cash. Hawaii’s Department of Taxation says some residents may not see state income tax refunds until the end of August. Most states typically issue refunds within 30 days.

Economic News

Regulators on Friday shut down banks in New York, Florida and Louisiana, raising to 30 the number of failures this year of federally insured banks. The number of banks on the FDIC’s confidential “problem” list jumped to 702 in the fourth quarter from 552 three months earlier, even as the industry squeezed out a small profit. Last year, 140 banks failed. Last year’s bank closures cost the insurance fund more than $30 billion. There were 25 bank failures in 2008 and just three in 2007.

Americans regained more of their shrunken wealth last quarter, mainly because the healing economy boosted stock portfolios. But the gain was less than in the previous two quarters. The Federal Reserve reported Thursday that household net worth rose 1.3% in the fourth quarter to $54.2 trillion. It marked the third straight quarter of gains. Net worth rose a stronger 4.5% in the second quarter of 2009 and an even faster 5.5% in the third quarter. Net worth is the value of assets such as homes, checking accounts and investments minus debts like mortgages and credit cards. Even with the gain, Americans’ net worth would have to rise an additional 21% just to get back to its pre-recession peak of $65.9 trillion.

Retail sales posted a surprising increase in February as consumers did not let major snowstorms stop them from storming the malls. The advance, the biggest since November, provided hope that the recovery from the recession is gaining momentum. The Commerce Department said Friday that retail sales rose 0.3% in February. The overall gain was held back by a 2% decline in auto sales, reflecting in part the recall problems at Toyota. Excluding autos, sales rose 0.8%.

U.S. airlines flew fewer passengers last year than at any time since 2004. The number of domestic and international travelers ferried by U.S. carriers for all of 2009 dropped 5.3% from the year before. But the planes were fuller than ever, largely because airlines cut back on flights or moved to smaller planes. U.S. carriers set a record, with flights that were on average 80.4% full system-wide in 2009.

The U.S. will spend about $1.8 trillion more than it gets in revenue this year. Next year, it will add an estimated $1.2 trillion to the debt. As big as the U.S. debt is, it’s not as bad as many other countries’ debt, relative to gross domestic product. Economists say no other country has a currency as strong or as well-regarded as the U.S. has, even with its current fiscal woes.

  • If the world debt problems exceed those in the U.S. then the next downturn will be much worse than this recession.

Israel

Israel has sealed off the West Bank for 48 hours, preventing Palestinians from entering Israel because of fears of unrest. There have been clashes after Friday prayers at mosques in Jerusalem and elsewhere in recent weeks, sparked by deadlock in peace talks and Israel’s inclusion of two West Bank shrines on a list of national heritage sites. Several Palestinians have been badly wounded and dozens of protesters and Israeli policemen have suffered light injuries.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Friday delivered a stinging rebuke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his government’s announcement this week of new Jewish housing in east Jerusalem, calling it “a deeply negative signal” for the Mideast peace process and ties with the U.S. “The announcement of the settlements on the very day that the vice president was there was insulting,” Clinton said in an interview with CNN Friday.

Germany

German educators sharply criticized Catholic church officials for their handling of a spiraling child abuse scandal even as more alledged victims came forward Thursday, including a former member of the all-boys choir led by the pope’s brother. Germany’s top education representative, Ludwig Spaenle, blasted the church for failing to report cases of physical and sexual abuse in a timely fashion. At least 170 former students from Catholic schools in Germany have come forward with claims of sexual abuse recently and others have spoken of physical abuse.

  • Nothing hurts the cause of Christ more than these kinds of incidents/allegations

Pakistan

A suicide bomber driving a motorized rickshaw blew himself up at a security checkpoint in northwestern Pakistan on Saturday, officials said, killing at least 13 people, injuring 52 and underscoring the nation’s relentless security threat. The blast in the small town of Saidu Sharif in Pakistan’s violence-battered Swat Valley was the second major attack in the country in less than 24 hours, raising fears of a new wave of violence by anti-government militants.

A pair of suicide bombers targeting army vehicles detonated explosives within seconds of each other Friday, killing at least 43 people in this eastern city and wounding nearly 100, police said. It was the fourth major attack in Pakistan this week, indicating Islamist militants are stepping up violence after a period of relative calm. The bombers, who were on foot, struck RA Bazaar, a residential and commercial neighborhood where several security agencies have facilities.

Afghanistan

Russia‘s envoy to NATO has sharply criticized the alliance’s shift away from fighting drug trafficking in Afghanistan, saying the resulting surge in heroin smuggling is endangering Russia’s national security. Moscow is also “(Russia) is losing 30,000 lives a year to the Afghan drug trade, and a million people are addicts,” Rogozin said. “This is an undeclared war against our country.” worried about declining public support in Europe for the war. For years, the allies tried to eradicate poppy crops, but that resulted in a boost to the insurgency as impoverished poppy farmers joined the Taliban. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s new policy of trying to win the support of the population means that these farmers are now left alone, enabling them to tend crops that produce 90% of the world’s heroin.

A remote-controlled bomb killed six Afghan civilians Saturday as they traveled in a central province. Insurgents detonated the explosives planted in a road as the civilians’ vehicle passed by in Tirin Kot, capital of central Uruzgan province. Roadside bombs are a favorite weapon of insurgents fighting the U.S.-backed government elected after the 2001 invasion that drove the hard-line Taliban from power. While a leading killer of international troops in Afghanistan, the homemade explosives planted by insurgents often kill civilians. Nearly 70% of the 2,412 civilian deaths last year were caused by insurgents.

Turkey

Famed PLO terrorist-turned-Christian Walid Shoebat is warning that the United States needs to be watching not Iran, Syria or even Hamas and Hezbollah as closely as it needs to follow the actions of the Islamic leaders of Turkey. Turkey appears to be seeking the restoration of the old Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s increasing disinterest in the European Union combined with its efforts to re-establish its influence in Turkic countries of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and its outreaches to Russian, Syria and Iran are cause for concern. Turkey is the strongest military power in the region, and it’s the second largest army in NATO.

  • Turkey is a key end-time, anti-Israel player according to some interpretations of Biblical prophecies

Weather

Much of the nation may be snow-weary, but farmers and ranchers who rely on winter snowpack in the northern Rockies for irrigation during the dry months of the growing season could face water shortages this summer unless more snow arrives soon. In Spokane, Wash., the winter of 2009-10 has been the least snowy on record, with a mere 13.7 inches of snowfall recorded so far, according to the National Weather Service. The city usually averages more than 46 inches of snow each winter.

Pothole patching crews are making repairs earlier this year after an unusually severe winter of heavy snowstorms followed by freezing temperatures, then a quick warm-up. Wichita has patched 13,000 potholes in the first two months of the year, three times the 4,000 it repaired in the same period last year. The extra cost is nicking already tight budgets. Medford, Mass., has spent almost double its $500,000 snow and ice budget since Christmas to repair potholes. The pothole problem is unlikely to improve unless more money is spent to maintain roads, says Peter King, executive director of the American Public Works Association. “What we are seeing is the result of deferring maintenance over time,” King says. “Next year it will be worse, and two years from now even worse.”