Americans Prefer ‘Merry Christmas’ to ‘Happy Holidays’

Most Americans still prefer to see “Merry Christmas” as a store’s holiday greeting, The Christian Post reports. According to a Rasmussen Reports survey in November, 69 percent of those polled would rather see “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” Liberty Counsel President Mathew Staver said the results to the November poll corresponds to what he has been saying all along. “People enjoy Christmas,” he stated. Liberty Counsel publishes a Friend or Foe Christmas list to indicate a retailer’s friendliness towards the traditional greeting. Staver cited Wal-Mart as an “absurd” example of so-called anti-Christmas policies. “They had even said that [store employees] could not return a greeting of ‘Merry Christmas’ even if it was said by a customer,” he recalled. “The absurdity of this has [made] people become very vocal and I think retailers are now listening.”

Democrats Mount Last-Ditch Push of Costly DREAM Act

Apparently undeterred by Friday’s 9.8 percent unemployment shocker, Democrats in both the House and the Senate say they will push for floor votes this week on a DREAM Act that opponents warn will add untold billions to the federal deficit. Republicans aiming to keep the focus on cutting taxes and boosting employment are expected to oppose the measure. Several blue dog Democrats in the House say they will also oppose the measure, which provides a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented workers who either attend college or serve in the military. The White House is urging Congress to pass the bill. On Thursday, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released an analysis showing that the DREAM Act would reduce the deficit by $1.4 billion over the next 10 years. It would do so by adding authorized workers to the tax rolls. However, a report that the Center for Immigration Studies published last week projects a much different impact. The study anticipates a cost to taxpayers of $6.2 billion a year. It predicts that the act would spur more than 1 million youths to enroll in state universities and community colleges, where they would receive an average tuition assistance of $6,000 annually.

WikiLeaks’ Swedish Servers Under Attack

WikiLeaks’ Swedish Web hosting company says its servers have become unresponsive and are probably under attack. WikiLeaks has been under sustained pressure from across the Internet since it began releasing a massive dump of U.S. diplomatic cables. The unprecedented disclosure has embarrassed the American government and prompted U.S. officials to pressure the site and its facilitators. PRQ hasn’t shut down the servers or been pressured by law enforcement on the matter.

WikiLeaks’ elusive founder, his options dwindling, has turned to Switzerland’s credit, postal and Internet infrastructure to keep his online trove of U.S. State Department cables afloat. Supporters say Julian Assange is seeking asylum in Switzerland. He told a Spanish newspaper that he faced “hundreds of death threats,” including some targeting his lawyers and children, aside from the pressure he is getting from prosecutors in the U.S. and other countries.

Leaked Documents Detail How Arab Allies Fund Terror Groups

Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab neighbors remain major sources of financing for militant movements like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, according to leaked U.S. files. Saudi Arabia has made “important progress” in aggressively trying to curtail the flow of funds to terrorist groups, but the oil rich kingdom and its Gulf Arab neighbors still remain major sources of financing for militant movements like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, according to leaked U.S. government documents. The findings, detailed in a series of internal U.S. diplomatic cables spanning a period of several years, paint a stark picture of Washington’s challenges in convincing key allies of the need to clamp down on terror funding, much of which is believed to stem from private donors in those nations. But the cables, obtained and released by WikiLeaks, also offer a window into the delicate balancing act Gulf governments must perform in cracking down on extremist sympathizers while not running afoul of religious charitable duties and casting themselves as U.S. stooges before an increasingly skeptical populace. Saudi Arabia, the homeland of most of the Sept. 11 hijackers, has repeatedly come under fire from the U.S. for its sluggish response to cracking down on terror financing. It has also been criticized for its reluctance to confront the fiery rhetoric espoused by some of its hardline clerics which is seen as either directly or indirectly fueling extremism.

Explosive-Laden Calif. Home to be Destroyed

Neighbors gasped when authorities showed them photos of the inside of the Southern California home: Crates of grenades, mason jars of white, explosive powder and jugs of volatile chemicals that are normally the domain of suicide bombers. Prosecutors say Serbian-born George Jakubec quietly packed the home with the largest amount of homemade explosives ever found in one location in the U.S. and was running a virtual bomb-making factory in his suburban neighborhood. How the alleged bank robber obtained the chemicals and what he planned to do with them remain mysteries. Now authorities face the risky task of getting rid of the explosives. The property is so dangerous and volatile that that they have no choice but to burn the home to the ground this week in a highly controlled operation involving dozens of firefighters, scientists and hazardous material and pollution experts. Authorities went into the home after Jakubec was arrested. Jakubec is in federal custody after being indicted by a federal grand jury on charges related to making destructive devices and robbing three local banks.

US Fails to Tackle Student Visa Abuses

Lured by unsupervised, third-party brokers with promises of steady jobs and a chance to sightsee, some foreign college students on summer work programs in the U.S. get a far different taste of life in America. An Associated Press investigation found students forced to work in strip clubs instead of restaurants. Others take home $1 an hour or even less. Some live in apartments so crowded that they sleep in shifts because there aren’t enough beds. Others have to eat on floors. They are among more than 100,000 college students who come to the U.S. each year on popular J-1 visas, which supply resorts with cheap seasonal labor as part of a program aimed at fostering cultural understanding. Government auditors have warned about problems in the program for 20 years, but the State Department, which is in charge of it, only now says it is working on new rules. Officials won’t say what those rules are or discuss on the record the problems that have plagued J-1 visas.

Mounting State Debt Another Looming Crisis

Some of the same people who warned of the looming subprime crisis two years ago are ringing alarm bells again. Their message: Not just small towns or dying Rust Belt cities, but also large states like Illinois and California are increasingly at risk. The finances of some state and local governments are so distressed that some analysts say they are reminded of the run-up to the subprime mortgage meltdown or of the debt crisis hitting nations in Europe. Analysts fear that at some point investors could balk at lending to the weakest states, setting off a crisis that could spread to the stronger ones, much as the turmoil in Europe has spread from country to country. Felix Rohatyn, the financier who helped save New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s, warned that while municipal bankruptcies are rare, they appeared increasingly possible. And the imbalances are so large in some places that the federal government will probably have to step in at some point.

The State of Illinois is still paying off billions in bills that it got from schools and social service providers last year. Arizona recently paying for certain organ transplants for people in its Medicaid program. States are releasing prisoners early, more to cut expenses than to reward good behavior. And in Newark, the city laid off 13 percent of its police officers last week. While next year could be even worse, there are bigger, longer-term risks, financial analysts say. Their fear is that even when the economy recovers, the shortfalls will not disappear, because many state and local governments have so much debt — several trillion dollars’ worth, with much of it off the books and largely hidden from view — that it could overwhelm them in the next few years.

Economic News

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is stepping up his defense of the Fed’s $600 billion Treasury bond-purchase plan, saying the economy is still struggling to become “self-sustaining” without government help. The Fed chairman said he thinks another recession is unlikely. But he warned that the economy could suffer a slowdown if persistently high unemployment dampens consumer spending.

Members of Congress said Sunday they are on track for a deal that would include a temporary extension of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for all Americans. An extension of unemployment insurance — a demand of President Obama and many Democrats — would also be part of a potential agreement, lawmakers from both parties said on various talk shows. Senate Republicans derailed legislation Saturday to extend expiring tax cuts at all but the highest income levels.

Barring a steep drop in crude prices, U.S. motorists can expect to see gas prices exceeding $3 per gallon by the end of the year. The latest Lundberg Survey of cities in the continental United States was conducted Friday. It showed the national average price for a gallon of self-serve unleaded gasoline at $2.91, an increase of 3.9 cents from the last survey two weeks earlier.

Iran

Iran said on Sunday it has found enough uranium in its own mines to get around a United Nations ban on uranium ore imports that was meant to prevent the Islamic nation from going forward with its nuclear program. Iran made its claim a day before a new round of nuclear talks with world powers that want to rein in Iran’s uranium enrichment — a process that can be used either to make fuel for energy or atomic bombs. “No matter how much effort they put into their sanctions … our nuclear activities will proceed and they will witness greater achievements in the future,” nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said on state-run Press TV. Iran’s rulers have flouted several U.N. Security Council resolutions against their program, which the West alleges is for making bombs, not energy.

Iraq

Intelligence officials say foreign fighters have been slipping back into Iraq in larger numbers recently and may have been behind some of the most devastating attacks this year, reviving a threat the U.S. military believed had been almost entirely eradicated. It is impossible to verify the actual numbers of foreign insurgents entering the country. But one Middle Eastern intelligence official estimated recently that 250 came in October alone. U.S. officials say the figure is far lower, but have acknowledged an increase since August. At the same time, Iraqi officials say there has been a surge in financial aid to al-Qaeda’s front group in Iraq as the U.S. military prepares to leave by the end of 2011. They said it reflects fears by Arab states over the growing influence of  Iran’s Shiite-led government over Iraq and its Shiite-dominated government.

Iraqi police are reporting a new attack on Christians in Baghdad by gunmen who broke into the home of an elderly couple and killed them. It was the latest in a series of attacks on the country’s Christian minority, which has been fleeing the country in droves since an Oct. 31 assault on a Catholic church that killed 68.

Pakistan

Pakistani officials say the death toll in an attack by a pair of suicide bombers in a militant-infested area in the country’s northwest has risen to 50. Monday’s attack also wounded more than 100 people, many of them critically. The militants struck a government compound in Mohmand, one of Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal areas, while a tribal jirga was meeting to discuss forming an anti-Taliban militia. The dead and wounded included tribal elders, police and political officials.

Afghanistan

A Taliban suicide bomb ripped through shop stalls inside an eastern Afghan army base on Sunday, killing two NATO service members and at least two civilians, officials said. At least 18 people were wounded. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying it was a suicide attack by a sleeper agent who had joined the Afghan army so that he would be able to kill foreigners. The explosion occurred in an area of the Gardez army base where shopkeepers sell goods to both Afghan soldiers and their partnered NATO troops.

Afghans are losing faith in the United States and its allies and are now more willing to negotiate with the Taliban, a new poll shows. According to the Washington Post, 73 percent think a settlement should be negotiated with the Taliban and more than half want the U.S. and its allies to begin leaving the country in mid-2011 or earlier. The poll, conducted in all of the country’s 34 provinces by the Washington Post, ABC, ARD television of Germany, and the British Broadcasting Corp., showed that the United States’ image continues to decline. When asked how they would rate the work of the United States, 32 percent of Afghans rated it good or excellent, down from 68 percent in October 2005.

Korea

South Korean troops pushed ahead with naval firing drills Monday, a day after North Korea warned such exercises would aggravate already high tensions between the rivals following the North’s deadly shelling last month of a front-line South Korean island. The drills came ahead of a planned meeting by top diplomats from the United States, South Korea and Japan later Monday in Washington on the North’s recent aggressive moves, including expanding its nuclear program in a way that could boost its atomic arsenal. South Korea’s army began firing artillery into the waters off the divided Korean peninsula as part of week-long drills set to continue through next Sunday.

he U.S. and South Korea have reached an agreement on America’s largest trade pact in more than a decade, a highly coveted deal the Obama administration hopes will boost U.S. exports and create tens of thousands of jobs at home. After a week of marathon negotiations, representatives from both countries broke through a stalemate Friday morning on outstanding issues related to the automobile industry, which have been a sticking point in the talks. The agreement would be the largest U.S. trade deal since the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, with Canada and Mexico and would bolster U.S. ties with the fast-growing South Korea economy.

Ivory Coast

International mediators tried to intervene Sunday in Ivory Coast’s growing political crisis after both candidates in the disputed election said they were now president, raising fears the country could again be divided in two. The international community has recognized opposition leader Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the presidential runoff vote held one week ago. That, however, did not stop Gbagbo from defying calls to concede. On Saturday, he wrapped himself in the Ivorian flag as he was sworn in for another term at the presidential palace. Hours later, Ouattara told reporters that he too had been sworn into office. The development effectively set up parallel governments and raised serious questions about who was actually in charge of this West African nation, which was split into a rebel-controlled north and government-controlled south by the 2002-2003 civil war. Despite Ouattara’s international support, Gbagbo holds many of the key elements of power, including the army and the state media.

Weather

An Arctic chill killed a dozen people in Poland and snarled traffic and halted flights across Europe, freezing ducks in lakes and prompting animal lovers to open their cellars to shivering stray cats, officials said Friday. Southeastern Europe struggled with some of the worst flooding in a century. Entire villages in Montenegro were submerged by the rising waters, with Interior Minister Ivan Brajovic describing the floods as “unprecedented.” With the latest deaths in Poland, the total number of people in Europe who have died of exposure in recent days has risen to at least 40.

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