Oil Spill Capped, Contained

Engineers with oil giant BP closed valves on their new 150,000-pound cap atop the ruptured well Thursday afternoon, and at 3:25 p.m. ET, for the first time in three months, oil stopped pouring from the broken well. BP engineers now will watch pressure readings to look for signs that any new leaks may develop. “Depending on what the test shows us, we may need to open this well back up,” BP Senior Vice President Kent Wells said. Engineers will monitor the pressure readings over 48 hours. Looming even larger is the work on a nearby relief well that BP continues to bill as the permanent solution to stopping the spill that has triggered a $3.5 billion response. If the oil pressure rises quickly, that suggests the metal casing is intact and holding, Wells says. However, if pressure drops or doesn’t build, that would be a sign of cracks in the casing.

Argentina Legalizes Gay Marriage in Historic Vote

Argentina has legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, becoming the first country in Latin America to give gays and lesbians all the legal rights that marriage brings to heterosexual couples. The vote came down to 33 in favor, 27 against and 3 abstentions in Argentina’s Senate early Thursday morning. Since the lower house already approved it, and President Cristina Fernandez is a strong supporter, it now becomes law. The vote came after a marathon debate and marches by supporters and opponents that drew thousands of people. It also comes despite a strong campaign against it by the Roman Catholic Church.

ACLU Continues Attacks on Prayer

In its words, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claims to support free speech. In deeds, the nation’s number one censor of religious freedom files outrageous lawsuits to prevent public governing boards from opening meetings with prayer. A board in North Carolina that traditionally allowed local clergy to open their meetings with voluntary prayer is one of many government groups facing such a lawsuit. The ACLU won a lower-court victory, and their attorney said “prayers specifically mentioning Jesus Christ” are “the very type of evil” the First Amendment is designed to protect against. The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is appealing on behalf of the governing board.

City in Uproar Over Kindergarten Sex Ed

The Helena Public Schools Board of trustees faced a large and emotionally charged crowd at its meeting Tuesday night as it considers whether to begin its sexual education curriculum in kindergarten. Once they are promoted to first grade, children will learn that sexual relations could happen between two men or two women.  By the time students are 10 years old, instruction will include the various ways people can have intercourse according to the proposal. When the plan was announced in June it hit like a shock wave to this city of 29,000 people. The Montana Family Foundation is fighting the proposed changes, telling Fox News its biggest concern is teaching graphic sexual detail to kids who are not emotionally able to process or comprehend it.

New Health Care Law Raises Abortion Issues

Abortion opponents are warning that abortions will be covered in some new government health care programs for people who have been denied insurance because of pre-existing conditions, despite an order signed by President Obama forbidding the use of federal money for the procedure. The order, signed by Obama in March in an effort to win enough votes to pass sweeping health care legislation, is “a sham,” says House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio. The National Right to Life Committee is citing language on government websites in two states — Pennsylvania and New Mexico— suggesting that new federally funded high-risk insurance pools for patients with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes will cover “elective” abortions for residents of those states. In keeping with Obama’s executive order, abortions will only be covered in cases of rape, incest and if the woman’s life is endangered, says Health and Human Service Department spokeswoman Jenny Backus.

  • If there is even the slightest loophole, abortionists will seize the opportunity even as Obama claims to be blameless

Vatican Child Rights Report 13 Years Overdue

The Vatican has failed to send the United Nations a report on child rights that is now almost 13 years overdue. Like all countries that have signed the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Vatican is required to submit regular reports on its efforts to safeguard child rights. But the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, despite sending repeated reminders, has received no explanation from the Holy See for why it missed a 1997 deadline, according to the committee’s chairwoman Yanghee Lee. In the years since, the Vatican has come under intense scrutiny over its handling of child sex abuse allegations around the world and recently admitted that up to one in 20 priests may be implicated.

The Vatican issued a revised set of in-house rules Thursday to respond to clerical sex abuse, targeting priests who molest the mentally disabled as well as children and priests who use child pornography, but making few substantive changes to existing practice. The new rules make no mention of the need for bishops to report clerical sex abuse to police, provide no canonical sanctions for bishops who cover up for abusers and do not include any “one-strike and you’re out” policy for pedophile priests as demanded by some victims. As a result, they failed to satisfy victims’ advocates, who said the revised rules amounted to little more than “administrative housekeeping” of existing practice when what was needed were bold new rules threatening bishops who fail to report molester priests.

No Ruling Yet in Hearing on Ariz. Immigration Law

Arizona’s impending immigration law went before a federal judge for the first time Thursday, and attorneys for both sides sparred over who had the right to enforce immigration law: local officials or the federal government. U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton didn’t rule on whether to block the law from taking effect July 29 or whether to dismiss the lawsuit, one of seven. Hearings in two other lawsuits — including one filed by the federal government — also began Thursday. At stake is more than just who can detain illegal immigrants within U.S. borders. If Bolton rules in Arizona’s favor, it opens the door to states taking on issues that have long been the responsibility of the federal government. John Bouma, an attorney representing the state, argued that Arizona shouldn’t have to suffer from the country’s broken immigration system. Allowing Arizona to carry out its own immigration law violates all court decisions that hold that only the federal government can handle immigration, countered Stephen Montoya, an attorney for Phoenix police officer David Salgado, who filed the lawsuit along with the statewide non-profit group Chicanos Por La Causa.

This week, nine state attorneys general — including three Republicans running for governor — filed a friend-of-the-court brief backing Arizona in its fight with the federal government. Latino groups, meanwhile, unveiled polling data showing the Arizona law has infuriated the nation’s fastest-growing voting bloc. No matter what its fate in the federal courts, the proposed Arizona law already is having a major impact on the midterm elections that will determine which party controls Congress and 37 governor’s offices. A wide majority of Americans consistently say they favor the Arizona law, according to various polls. Hispanics are equally unanimous — on the other side. A survey released this week by a coalition of Hispanic groups found that eight in 10 Hispanic voters oppose the Arizona law.

Record Amounts of Jobless Benefits

More than 3 million Americans could lose unemployment benefits by the end of July even as the government spends record amounts to compensate the jobless, a USA TODAY analysis shows. The growing number of unemployed workers without benefits comes as Congress argues whether to again extend jobless benefits. The number of people collecting benefits will fall from 10.5 million to 7 million at the end of July if Congress doesn’t extend the payments. About 400,000 Americans are exhausting their benefits every week, saving the government $2 billion since June and an estimated $34 billion through November. Unemployment insurance has helped as many as 11 million people at one time — a record — while driving the program’s cost to an annual rate of $145 billion in the first quarter. That’s more than double what was spent in any previous recession, after adjusting for inflation. Congress has extended unemployment benefits in every recession since the 1950s. The current extension — up to 99 weeks — far exceeds the previous longest extension of 65 weeks in 1975.

Small Banks Worry About Impact of New Financial Rules

The massive overhaul of financial regulations is largely aimed at the nation’s “too big to fail” banks, but small institutions say they’ll be affected as well — in some cases more profoundly than their larger rivals. Backed by less revenue and fewer resources, some community banks say the historic revamp will burden them with new rules and compliance costs, constrain their ability to lend and eat into their revenue. But consumer advocates say small banks are overstating the case, noting they have been exempted from some of the legislation’s most onerous mandates and providing additional exceptions would have opened the door to abuses. Some parts of the overhaul actually help small banks, a point the ICBA itself made Thursday in a statement after the Senate passed the Dodd-Frank Act. While the ICBA disagrees with some provisions, the bill does differentiate between Wall Street megabanks and Main Street community banks.

  • More rules, more bureaucracy, more costs – a formula that never fails.

Economic News

New applications for unemployment benefits fell sharply in the U.S. last week while manufacturing activity cooled in June and wholesale prices dipped, offering mixed signals on the economic recovery. The Labor Department said Thursday that new claims dropped by 29,000 to 429,000, the lowest level since August 2008. It was the second straight week that initial claims dropped sharply.

The consumer price index fell for the third straight month in June, dropping 0.1%, the Labor Department said Friday. Less expensive energy bills were a big factor behind the drop. Prices for some food items and airlines fares also fell. But excluding those two volatile commodities, inflation was relatively flat. Some economists are now warning of a possible deflationary cycle.

The Federal Reserve said industrial production rose 0.1% in June, the fourth straight monthly gain. But manufacturing activity — the largest component of production — fell 0.4% after rising for three months.

More than 1 million U.S. households could lose their homes to foreclosure this year, as lenders work their way through a huge backlog of borrowers who have fallen behind on their loans, according to RealtyTrac, a foreclosure tracking service. Nearly 528,000 homes were taken over by lenders in the first six months of the year, a rate that is on track to eclipse the more than 900,000 homes repossessed in 2009. Historically, lenders have taken over about 100,000 homes a year.

Federal Reserve officials now fear that the U.S. economy will take at least five or six years to fully recover from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Fed officials also trimmed their forecasts for growth this year.

Afghanistan

American forces suffered a deadly 24 hours in Afghanistan, with eight troops killed in attacks including an audacious Taliban raid on a police compound in the key southern city of Kandahar Wednesday. The U.S. and its coalition allies have warned that violence and troop casualties are likely to mount this summer as thousands of new forces fan out across southern insurgent strongholds in a bid to turn around the nearly 9-year-long war. So far in July, 45 coalition troops have died in Afghanistan, 33 of them Americans, continuing the upward trend of the previous month, which was war’s deadliest for the NATO-led force, with 103 international soldiers killed. Gunmen kidnapped five Health Ministry employees in volatile Kandahar province Friday.

Pakistan

Intelligence officials say suspected U.S. missiles have killed at least two people in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region. The three missiles struck the Mada Khel area of the northwest region filled with militants determined to oust Western troops from across the border in Afghanistan. The U.S. has launched numerous missile strikes aimed at wiping out Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Pakistan officially condemns the attacks but is believed to secretly assist the program.

An explosion near a bus terminal in Pakistan’s Swat Valley killed two people and wounded at least 35 people Thursday, officials said, a sign that Islamist militants remain active in the northwest region despite a massive army operation against them. The explosion went off around noon in Mingora, the main town in the one-time tourist haven that was overrun by the Taliban back in 2007.

Iran

A Sunni insurgent group said it carried out a double suicide bombing against a Shiite mosque in southeast Iran to avenge the execution of its leader, as Iranian authorities Friday said the death toll rose to 27 people, including members of the elite Revolutionary Guard. The blast was the latest by the group Jundallah, which has repeatedly succeeded in carrying out deadly strikes on the Guard, the country’s most powerful military force. Shiite worshippers were attending ceremonies marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussein, when the first blast went off outside the mosque in the provincial capital Zahedan.

Iraq

Tuesday’s planned session of the Iraqi Parliament has been “postponed” indefinitely, according to officials, as the ongoing coalition talks between various top officials has broken down. Iraq’s parliament last met on June 14, an 18 minute session that lasted just long enough to swear in the new members of parliament. Under the Iraqi Constitution the parliament can only recess for 30 days without appointing a new president, which is why tomorrow’s session was originally scheduled (the last possible day). The delay will be just the latest of the constitutional requirements ignored in Iraq’s political gridlock. With the mandated date skipped, it will remain to be seen just how long parliament can remain in recess, and how long Iraq can remain with a lame duck prime minister with no decision making powers.

Yemen

Masked gunmen riding motorcycles and armed with mortars and rocket propelled grenades attacked two intelligence buildings in southern Yemen Wednesday in the second such assault on a Yemeni security offices in less than a month. The attack in the southern Abyan province left one security officer and one militant dead, and apparently only failed to cause more casualties because it took place early in the morning and the buildings were still empty. It comes less than a month after an attack on the intelligence headquarters in Yemen’s second largest city, Aden, killed 11 security officers and freed an undetermined number of prisoners, and could mark a new push by suspected al-Qaeda militants to target high-profile Yemeni government buildings. The attacks have further fueled concerns that Yemen’s weak central government is struggling to tame an increasingly aggressive threat from al-Qaeda militants that are setting up operations in the impoverished country.

Earthquakes

A minor earthquake shook residents awake in the Washington, D.C., area early Friday, rattling windows but apparently causing no serious damage. And while residents of more quake-prone areas might scoff at the 3.6 magnitude temblor, Susan Potter, a geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey, said it was the strongest to hit within 30 miles of the U.S. capital city since they began keeping records. The quake hit at 5:04 a.m. ET and was centered in the Rockville, Maryland, area. Police in Washington and in nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, said there were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

Weather

March, April, May and June set records, making 2010 the warmest year worldwide since record-keeping began in 1880, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says. There were exceptions: June was cooler than average across Scandinavia, southeastern China, and the northwestern USA. Marc Morano, a global-warming skeptic who edits the Climate Depot website, says the government “is playing the climate fear card by hyping predictions and cherry-picking data.” Joe D’Aleo, a meteorologist who co-founded The Weather Channel, disagrees, too. He says oceans are entering a cooling cycle that will lower temperatures. He says too many of the weather stations NOAA uses are in warmer urban areas.

Severe storms pounded eastern North Dakota, leaving thousands of residents without power and causing a fire that forced the evacuation of a nursing home. Strong winds caused tree, power line and property damage in the Fargo metro area. Winds downed trees and power lines, making many streets impassable. Lightning was believed responsible for power outages and an attic fire in Jamestown, and for a propane tank fire in Lisbon that prompted the evacuation of a nursing home.

Workers raced to build waterways to drain overflowing reservoirs in southeastern China and thousands were evacuated following torrential rains that triggered flash floods on Wednesday. Heavy rains overwhelmed three reservoirs in Poyang county in northern Jiangxi province, forcing the evacuation of more than 10,000 people. Several torrential storms have pelted the Yangtze River basin this week.

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