Signs of the Times (12/23/11)

Not Christmas, but Christ.

Not merriment, but the Messiah.

Not goodwill, but God.

Not presents, but His presence

(by Greg Laurie)

House Republicans Agree to Two-Month Payroll Tax Patch

Both chambers of Congress passed an amended version of the two-month payroll tax cut extension Friday, sending the measure to President Barack Obama’s desk and handing Democrats a hard-fought victory on an issue — taxes — that has historically favored their Republican counterparts. The measure cleared the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives by unanimous consent, a procedural move allowing the measure to pass even though most members of Congress are now home for the holidays. Among other things, the measure also includes a two-month extension of emergency federal unemployment benefits and the so-called “doc fix,” a delay in scheduled pay cuts to Medicare physicians. President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill, wrapping up a legislative year marked by repeated partisan brinksmanship and declining public approval of a seemingly dysfunctional Congress.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, finally succumbed Thursday to calls from across the political spectrum for House Republicans to stop blocking congressional approval of the bipartisan two-month extension, which has been previously approved by the Senate. Thursday’s agreement produced essentially the same proposal House Republicans rejected from the Senate earlier this week. The Senate passed the measure last Saturday in an 89-10 vote, with strong Republican support. Under the deal, the payroll tax will remain at the current 4.2% rate instead of reverting to the 6.2% rate it was at before the cut enacted last year. Without congressional action, the higher rate would have returned in 2012, meaning an average $1,000 tax increase for 160 million Americans. The deal also includes a provision supported by Republicans regarding construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas that Republicans say will create 20,000 jobs in short order. The White House has said the project needs more time for environmental review, but President Obama will have 60 days to either issue a permit to allow it to be built, or to explain why it is not in the national interest in order to halt it.

Religious Freedom Under Fire at the United Nations

The Religion News Service reports that on Dec. 19, the United Nations adopted a resolution against religious intolerance. However, religious rights groups say the resolution, backed by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), is really designed to prevent and criminalize criticism of Islam as well as granting cover to Islamic-based blasphemy laws such as those in Pakistan. Frank Gaffney, president of the American Center for Security Policy, says the OIC is a “multi-national Muslim mafia. … It is 57 states and Palestine that have come together to promote what is fundamentally the agenda that is known as sharia [Islamic law].” Author Nina Shea added, “[The OIC is] asking the West to enforce criminal punishment for blasphemy against Islam within Western borders against their own citizens.” The American Center for Law and Justice is calling for nations with histories of religious persecution to think twice before implementing the new resolution.

Charities Give Christmas Gift of Water

Clean, accessible water for the world’s poor is one of the hottest causes of the season. December donors are sending millions of dollars flowing to villages and urban slums in Africa, South Asia and Central America. And, drop by drop, lives are changed. Countless children are spared killer waterborne diseases. Countless women are spared backbreaking hours fetching water in 40-pound, 5-gallon plastic jugs. There are dozens of water-focused charities touted on websites, in Christmas-themed catalogs and at social events such as a sold-out, celebrity-packed Manhattan charity ball last week. They’ve honed the message — water is critical to health and social and economic development for nearly 900 million people — in a way that it can compete for urgent attention with hunger, malaria, HIV/AIDS and refugee aid.

Pro-Life Nurses Win Major Workplace Battle

Twelve nurses who sued one of the state’s largest hospitals after claiming they were forced to assist in abortions over their religious and moral objections reached a deal Thursday with their employer in federal court. Under the agreement, 12 nurses in the same-day surgery unit of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey can remain in their current positions and not be compelled to assist in any part of an abortion procedure. The nurses must only help in a life-threatening emergency if no other non-objecting staff members are available and only until which time one can be brought in to relieve them, according to the agreement. Despite the ruling specifying that the nurses wouldn’t be discriminated against, Racpan Vinoya said she was still nervous they would be transferred, have their hours cut or otherwise be punished for having sued.

Voters Leaving Republican, Democratic Parties in Droves

More than 2.5 million voters have left the Democratic and Republican parties since the 2008 elections, while the number of independent voters continues to grow. The trend is acute in states that are key to next year’s presidential race. In the eight swing states that register voters by party, Democrats’ registration is down by 800,000 and Republicans’ by 350,000. Independents have gained 325,000. The pattern continues a decades-long trend that has seen a diminution in the power of political parties, giving rise to independents as Ross Perot and Ralph Nader and the popularity this year of libertarian Republican Ron Paul. Registered Democrats still dominate the political playing field with more than 42 million voters, compared to 30 million Republicans and 24 million independents. But Democrats have lost the most — 1.7 million, or 3.9%, from 2008. “The strident voices of both the left and the right have sort of soured people from saying willingly that they belong to one party or the other,” says Doug Lewis, who represents state elections officials.

Judge Blocks Portions of S.C. Immigration Law

A federal court granted an order sought by the U.S. government blocking enforcement of South Carolina’s immigration law. U.S. District Judge Richard Mark Gergel said the United States is likely to succeed in its challenge to three sections of the law.The measure, which was to take effect Jan. 1, criminalizes an immigrant’s failure to carry a certificate of registration and requires police who suspect someone is in the United States unlawfully to verify the person’s legal status. The federal government on sued Oct. 31, saying the law will impose “significant and counterproductive burdens” on the United States, which claims legal preeminence in setting immigration policy.

Planes, Choppers to Replace National Guard Troops on Border

In January, the Pentagon will begin pulling out most of the 1,200 National Guard troops stationed along the Southwestern border since 2010 and replacing them with military helicopters and airplanes. Officials from the Defense Department and Homeland Security say aircraft outfitted with high-tech radar and other gear can cover more ground than troops in spotting and catching illegal border crossers and drug smugglers. “We are basically going from boots on the ground to boots in the air,” said David Aguilar, deputy commissioner for Customs and Border Protection. The officials say the shift in strategy is aimed at maintaining the Pentagon’s support for the Border Patrol while lowering costs. The new policy will reduce the National Guard presence on the border from the 1,200 authorized in 2010 to 300.

More Police Officers Dying in Ambushes

Despite a national campaign focused on police officer safety, the number of officers killed in the line of duty will increase for the second consecutive year, largely because of an alarming spike in ambush-style attacks, a Justice Department review has found. Federal and local officials for the past two years have been troubled by the overall number of firearms-related fatalities, which are up 23% so far in 2011, even though violent crime has declined in much of the country. Yet in 63 of the 65 shooting deaths that the Justice Department has analyzed this year, 73% were the result of ambush or surprise attacks. Less than two weeks until the end of the year, the total number of officer deaths from all causes—174 —already marks the third largest death toll in the past decade. Police departments were directed by the Justice Department to require officers to wear body armor or risk losing millions of dollars in federal aid.

Economic News

Consumers spent at a lackluster rate in November as their incomes barely grew, suggesting that U.S. households may struggle to sustain their spending into 2012. The Commerce Department says consumer spending rose just 0.1% in November, matching the modest October increase. Incomes also rose 0.1%. That was the weakest showing since a 0.1% decline in August.

In a second report Friday, Commerce said orders to factories for durable goods rose 3.8% in November, biggest gain since July. But so-called core capital goods, a proxy for business investment spending, dropped for a second straight month, falling 1.2% after a 0.9% decline in October. The declines in business capital goods excluding aircraft represented a setback in a key pocket of strength for the economy this year.

The number of people applying for unemployment benefits dropped last week to its lowest level since April 2008, extending a downward trend that shows the job market strengthening. The Labor Department says new applications for unemployment benefits fell last week by 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 364,000, a pace that usually signals hiring is strong enough to reduce the unemployment rate. It was the third straight weekly decrease.

The Commerce Department says the economy grew at an annual rate of 1.8% in the July-September quarter. That was the fastest growth this year, up from 1.3% in the April-June quarter. Economists think the economy is growing at an annual rate of more than 3% in the final three months of this year. That would be the fastest pace since a 3.8% performance in the spring of 2010. Among positive factors are a brightening job market, strong holiday shopping, further gains in factory production and cheaper gasoline prices.

After years of pain and a market free fall that has shaved $6.8 trillion off the value of the nation’s 104 million homes, the decline in U.S. house prices may be nearly over. U.S. homeowners lost $681 billion this year. That’s less than the $1.1 trillion drop in value in 2010, let alone the $2.7 trillion in losses in 2008. And a Zillow survey of 109 economists says U.S. home prices will stop falling late next year or early 2013, with the most optimistic quarter of economists predicting an 18% rebound by 2016. The reason is that the economy is slowly turning around, as prices have come into balance with buyers’ incomes.

Bank of America agreed to pay $335 million to resolve allegations that its Countrywide unit engaged in a widespread pattern of discrimination against qualified African-American and Hispanic borrowers on home loans. The Department Of Justice says it’s the largest settlement in history over residential fair lending practices.

Afghanistan

President Obama’s order to withdraw 10,000 American troops from Afghanistan this year has been accomplished, a little more than a week before the year-end deadline, military officials said Thursday. The drawdown is the first step in the plan to wind down the war, transition security to Afghan forces and end the combat role for international troops by the end of 2014. It also gives the Obama administration a second war-related accomplishment to tout this month — coming just a week after U.S. officials marked the end of the war in Iraq and the last convoy of American soldiers rumbled out of that country into Kuwait. Officials say there are now 91,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan — down from the peak of 101,000 in June.

Iraq

A wave of at least 14 bombings ripped across Baghdad Thursday morning, killing at least 60 people in the worst violence Iraq has seen for months. The apparently coordinated attacks struck days after the last American forces left Iraq and in the midst of a major government crisis between the country’s top Shiite and Sunni political leaders that has sent sectarian tensions soaring. The bombings may be linked more to the U.S. withdrawal than the political crisis, but all together the developments heighten fears of a new round of sectarian bloodshed like the one a few years ago that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.

Iraq’s Shiite prime minister is warning Kurdish authorities that they will face “problems” if they don’t hand over the Sunni vice president who fled to the Kurdish region after he was charged in an arrest warrant with running hit squads against the government. The terrorism charges were filed against Vice President Tariq Al-Hashemi one day after the last American troops left Iraq. Prime Minister Al-Maliki also threatened to replace members of a Sunni bloc that has boycotted parliament since the arrest warrant was issued. Al-Hashemi is a member of the bloc.

Iraq/Iran

Under international pressure, the Iraqi government on Wednesday backed off its threat to close a refugee camp holding 3,400 Iranian exiles by the end of the month. Instead, Iraq said it will shut Camp Ashraf sometime in January and insisted that all its residents must leave the country by April. It promised not to deport anyone to Iran. The extension of the deadline raises the likelihood of a peaceful resolution to the standoff, heading off a possible bloodbath that many international observers have feared. The future of Camp Ashraf, home to exiles dedicated to the overthrow of the Iranian regime, has been a sticking point for Iraq’s Shiite-led government, which counts Iran as an ally.

Pakistan

Pakistani Taliban fighters attacked a paramilitary fort in northwestern Pakistan on Friday, killing one soldier and kidnapping 15 others. The militants burned down buildings and captured a significant amount of weapons. The brazen attack was followed by a statement to media in which the militants said they would kill the abducted troops. Pakistani Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan claimed the attack was carried out to avenge the death of a local Taliban commander.

Syria

Twin suicide car bomb blasts ripped through an upscale Damascus district Friday, targeting heavily guarded intelligence buildings and killing at least 40 people. The blasts came a day after an advance team of Arab League observers arrived in the country to monitor Syria’s promise to end its crackdown on protesters demanding the ouster of President Bashar Assad. Government officials took the observers to the scene of the explosions and said it backed their longtime claims that the turmoil is not a popular uprising but the work of terrorists. The blasts were the first such suicide bombing in Syria since the uprising began in March.

Tunisia

Tunisia’s prime minister has presented a coalition government that gives key ministries to a moderate Islamist party, which dominated the country’s first post-uprising elections. Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, the No. 2 in the Islamist Ennahda party, says the 41-member government will focus on boosting the economy and fighting corruption. Joblessness and corruption helped drive popular anger during protests a year ago that forced out hard-line, longtime President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. That uprising led to revolts around the Arab world.

Earthquakes

A series of strong earthquakes struck the New Zealand city of Christchurch on Friday, rattling buildings, sending goods tumbling from shelves and prompting terrified holiday shoppers to flee into the streets. There was no tsunami alert issued and the city appeared to have been spared major damage. One person was injured at a city mall and was taken to a hospital, and four people had to be rescued after being trapped by a rock fall. The city is still recovering from a devastating February earthquake that killed 182 people and destroyed much of the downtown area. The first 5.8-magnitude quake struck Friday afternoon, 16 miles north of Christchurch. Minutes later, a 5.3-magnitude aftershock hit. About an hour after that, the city was shaken by another 5.8-magnitude temblor.

Weather

Strong storms that moved through Georgia caused at least two injuries from flying glass and damaged several homes and businesses, mostly in the northwestern part of the state. Emergency management officials say several businesses had windows blown out. Most of the damage was from fallen trees. Georgia Power estimated that more than 19,000 customers had lost electricity early Thursday evening.

The forecast around Reno, Nevada, doesn’t call for snow any time soon. And if that happens, it will be the first time in 128 years — since 1883 — that no precipitation will have fallen in December. The situation couldn’t be more different from this time last year, when the Lake Tahoe Basin’s snowpack was at more than twice the normal levels. On Tuesday, Tahoe’s snowpack was 10 percent of average. The situation not only affects the ski slopes but also the water supply. Dry western states’ primary source of water all year is snow melt.

President Obama announced an additional $113 million in emergency aid to the Horn of Africa Thursday, where millions of people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are suffering through famine and drought. Tens of thousands have died. The new emergency relief assistance will go for food, health, shelter, water and other needs. It is on top of $870 million the U.S. already has provided.

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