Signs of the Times (2/17/17)

House Overturns Obama’s Last-Minute Funding of Planned Parenthood

The U.S. House of Representatives voted 230 to 188 Friday to overturn former President Obama’s “eleventh hour” HHS rule forcing states to give Title X money to organizations that commit abortions. Title X money comes from the government to fund “family planning services,” but technically not abortion. Before he left office, Obama pushed through an HHS regulation that essentially forces states to give Planned Parenthood Title X funding. Rep. Diane Black, R-TN, introduced H.J. Res. 43 to overturn what pro-life groups call the Obama administration’s “parting gift” to Planned Parenthood. Family Research Council president Tony Perkins called the Obama HHS regulation a “backdoor handout for the abortion industry.” But thanks to the Congressional Review Act, Congress may overturn such agency regulations within 60 legislative days. Only 51 Senate votes are needed now that it has passed the House.

Majority of Americans Favor Heartbeat Bill

A new poll conducted by the Barna Group reveals that an overwhelming majority of Americans—nearly 7 out of 10—agree with the premise of the Heartbeat Protection Act of 2017, reports Charisma News. Otherwise known as the “Federal Heartbeat Bill,” HR 490 was offered by pro-life U.S. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has vowed to introduce the bill into every Congress until it is adopted. The bill would prohibit abortions everywhere in America whenever a fetal heartbeat is detected. According to the Barna findings, 69 percent of Americans agree with the statement “If a doctor is able to detect the heartbeat of an unborn baby, that unborn baby should be legally protected.” While the measure has much greater support among Republicans (86%) and Independents (61%), even a majority of Democrats (55%) who were polled said they supported the statement.

Up to 2 Million Non-Citizen Hispanics Illegally Registered to Vote

A new analysis has calculated that as many as 2 million non-citizen Hispanics were illegally registered to vote in the U.S., the Washington Times reported. The analysis combines a 2013 Hispanic survey with U.S. Census data finds the number of illegally registered Hispanics could range from 1 million to 2.1 million. It is derived from National Hispanic Survey, conducted in June 2013 by McLaughlin and Associates, and the number of non-citizen Hispanic adults in the U.S. Census of the same year. The National Hispanic Survey randomly selected sample of 800 Hispanics. Fifty-six percent, or 448, said they were non-citizens, and of those, 13 percent said they were registered to vote, the Times reported. James Agresti, director of the research nonprofit “Just Facts,” applied the 13 percent figure to the 11.8 million non-citizen Hispanic adults in the United States, which would amount to 1.5 million illegally registered Latinos. The estimate of 1 million to 2.1 million accounts for the margin of error based on the sample size of non-citizens. Another analysis by a political scientist at Old Dominion University, Jesse Richman, estimated Hillary Clinton received 834,381 net votes from noncitizens on Nov. 8.

Trump Attacks Media in Combative Press Conference

President Donald Trump made his most extensive attack on the media since taking office Thursday while defending his administration from critical coverage. In a press conference that lasted more than an hour, Trump repeatedly accused journalists of being hostile and dishonest in their reporting on his first month in office. “The press has become so dishonest that if we don’t talk about it, we are doing a tremendous disservice to the American people. Tremendous disservice,” Trump said. “We have to talk to find out what’s going on, because the press honestly is out of control. The level of dishonesty is out of control.” The press conference, which was nominally intended to announced Trump’s pick for labor secretary, was the president’s idea. A senior administration official told CNN that Trump walked into the Oval Office Thursday morning and told his top aides: “Let’s do a press conference today.” Trump also complained about the tone of the media’s coverage: “The tone is such hatred,” he said. The bulk of Trump’s remarks centered on defending his performance as president. “I inherited a mess,” Trump said three times. Instead of reported White House chaos, Trump said the administration is running like a “fine-tuned machine.” The president had been criticized recently for ignoring questioners from the mainstream media when holding his news conferences with foreign leaders. On Thursday, he took questions from more than a dozen reporters with mainstream outlets, including NPR, NBC, ABC, CBS and CNN, among others.

Trump Accuses Intelligence Agencies of Illegal Leaks

President Trump on Wednesday suggested the U.S. intelligence community may be “illegally” leaking sensitive information to hurt his administration, effectively ending a brief detente with agencies he previously accused of working against him. Trump’s latest Twitter screed comes in the wake of a string of damaging news stories based primarily on anonymous government sources, involving information apparently gathered by the nation’s spy agencies. The leaks culminated in National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s Monday night resignation. This was after The Washington Post reported he had discussed sanctions with a Russian official during the transition period – something Flynn had told Vice President Pence did not occur. The New York Times on Tuesday night also published a story alleging vague connections between several Trump associates – many of whom were not named – and Russian intelligence agents. “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!” Trump Tweeted.

Spy Agencies Reportedly Keeping Intelligence from Trump

Sensitive intelligence reportedly is being withheld from President Trump by U.S. intelligence officials because they are concerned that the information could be compromised. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that in some cases officials opted not to show the president how they collected the information. The paper, citing both former and current officials, said the decision to hold back information underscores the mistrust between the Executive Branch and intelligence agencies. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence denied the accusation late Wednesday that intelligence officials were withholding information from Trump. The Week magazine published an article Tuesday about how America’s spy agencies “took down Michael Flynn” who was forced to resign as Trump’s National Security Advisor.

Existing Border Wall Breached 9,000 Times in Five Years

While President Trump and government officials develop plans for a “wall” between the U.S. and Mexico, the agency responsible for securing the border is uncertain how successful the current fence has been. The 654 miles of fence already lining the border have been breached more than 9,200 times between 2010 and 2015, according to a report released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), citing records from the CBP (U.S. Customs and Border Protection). CBP officials say efforts to measure the effectiveness of fencing were stopped in 2013 due to “funding shortfalls.” Border Patrol officials interviewed by the GAO said fencing helps divert illegal border-crossings away from urban areas and into rural areas where agents can more readily respond. But officials also said smugglers and others can breach border fences by simply cutting through or finding ways over or under them.

‘Day Without Immigrants’ Only a Partial Success

Immigrants in all but a dozen states took part in a Día Sin Inmigrantes, a Day Without Immigrants, according to media reports. Fast food places and schools felt the greatest impact. Many fast food restaurants struggled with slow service. In Phoenix, as many as a third of students skipped class in some schools. The Thursday protest was organized nationwide in response to President Trump’s highly controversial executive orders and policies on immigration and to support undocumented immigrants who have become a target of the Trump administration. In 2015, about 26.3 million foreign-born people were working in the United States, 16.7% of the workforce, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Immigrants made up about 47% of the nation’s workforce expansion from 2004 through 2014, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Census estimates show that more than 13% of the U.S. population is foreign born, almost 43 million people.

U.S. Sees a Resurgence of Repackaged White Nationalism

Across the country, repackaged white-nationalism flyers are showing up on college campuses. Some promote blatant neo-Nazi rhetoric, others are much more subtle. “Protect your heritage.” “Let’s become great again.” “Our future belongs to us.” “White people, do something.” “Serve your people,” the flyers proclaim. They represent a less extreme white supremacist movement targeting the young and educated. On Wednesday, the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based organization that monitors hate crimes across the country, released its annual report on extremism in America. The report says the number of groups across the country increased in 2016 to 917, up from 892 in 2015. In 2011, SPLC recorded 1,018 active organizations, the highest tally it found in more than 30 years of tracking hate groups. That number had fallen to 784 in 2014.

ObamaCare in ‘Death Spiral,’ Aetna CEO Says

The leader of one of the U.S.’s largest health insurance agencies—who has been saying for months that ObamaCare is on the ropes– said Wednesday that statistics indicate that the law has now entered a “death spiral.” Aetna’s CEO Mark Bertolini told The Wall Street Journal that the health law’s market is nearing failure because healthier people have dropped out while premiums continue to climb. Health insurer Humana announced Tuesday that it is leaving the law’s public insurance exchanges for next year. Humana Inc. covers about 150,000 people on exchanges in 11 states. The health insurance industry claims that some consumers were abusing special enrollment by signing up when they needed expensive treatments, only to drop out later.

Scott Pruitt, Longtime Adversary of EPA, Confirmed to Head the Agency

Scott Pruitt, who as Oklahoma’s attorney general spent years suing the Environmental Protection Agency over its efforts to regulate various forms of pollution, was confirmed Friday as the agency’s next administrator. Pruitt cleared the Senate by a vote of 52-46. The vote came after Democrats held the Senate floor for hours overnight and through the morning to criticize Pruitt as climate-change skeptic and a pawn of the fossil-fuel industry. Republicans pressed forward with the afternoon vote, saying Pruitt had been thoroughly vetted in recent months and calling on Democrats to end what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called “a historic level of obstruction” in holding up Trump administration nominees. Pruitt’s confirmation marked a serious defeat for environmental advocacy groups, which wrote letters, waged a furious social media campaign, lobbied members of Congress, paid for television ads and sponsored a series of public protests to keep the Oklahoman from taking the reins of EPA.

Andrew Puzder Withdraws from Labor Nomination

Andrew Puzder, President Trump’s labor secretary nominee, withdrew from consideration Wednesday amid growing resistance from Senate Republicans centered primarily on Puzder’s past employment of an undocumented housekeeper. The collapse of Puzder’s nomination threw the White House into further turmoil just two days after the resignation of Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, amid revelations that ¬Flynn had spoken repeatedly, and possibly illegally, with the Russian ambassador last year about lifting U.S. sanctions. Puzder’s fate amplified the deteriorating relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill, where bipartisan support grew Wednesday for expanded investigations into ties between Trump, his presidential campaign and Russian officials.

Washington Florist Found Guilty of Discrimination

A Washington state florist who refused to provide services for a same-sex wedding in 2013 broke the state’s antidiscrimination law, the state’s Supreme Court ruled. Barronelle Stutzman, a florist in the town of Richland, said she was exercising her First Amendment rights.  Her lawyers promised that they would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the decision. Stutzman had previously sold the couple flowers and knew they were gay. However, Stutzman told them that she couldn’t provide flowers for their wedding because same-sex marriage was incompatible with her Christian beliefs. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson and the couple sued her, saying she broke state anti-discrimination and consumer protection laws, and the lower court agreed. The state’s nine high court justices upheld that verdict.

  • Private businesses, whether Christian or not, should be allowed to refuse service to anyone for any reason. Public corporations, though, are not individuals and are not protected by the First Amendment.

Boy Scouts of America has Lost its Focus

In 2013, the Boy Scouts of America made the decision to allow homosexual males to join the organization; and in 2016, BSA opened the doors to homosexual scout leaders. Earlier this year, the Scouts decided to welcome gender-confused girls into its ranks as well. The National Organization for Women has taken the latter development as a cue to demand the organization now begin taking girls into its ranks. NOW president Terry O’Neill says “it’s long past due that girls have equal opportunities in Scouting.”

  • This is crazy. Equal opportunity? Isn’t there already the Girl Scouts of America? Talk about gender confusion.

55,000 U.S. Bridges Structurally Deficient

A new report says the Brooklyn Bridge and Washington’s Arlington Memorial Bridge are among thousands of spans considered structurally deficient. Although the numbers of deficient bridges have declined in recent years, the American Road & Transportation Builders Association’s analysis of transportation department data shows more than 55,000 bridges in the U.S. have been deemed deficient. More than one out of every four bridges in the United States is more than 50 years old and have never had major reconstruction work. ARBTA says deficient bridges are crossed about 185 million times a day. The top 14 most-traveled deficient bridges are located in California. Bridges labeled structurally deficient aren’t necessarily in immediate danger of collapse. The term is applied when spans need rehabilitation or replacement because at least one major component has advanced deterioration or other problems.

U.S. Infrastructure Poor Overall

Overall, the American Society of Civil Engineers said that the condition of America’s infrastructure as a whole only gets a “D+” grade. Federal spending on infrastructure has decreased by 9 percent over the past decade. The average age of America’s dams is now 52 years. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the condition of America’s dams a “D” grade recently. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, over two-thirds of our roads are “in dire need of repair or upgrades”. In order to completely fix all of our roads and bridges, it would take approximately 808 billion dollars. America does not have a single airport that is considered to be in the top 25 in the world.

Economic News

U.S. consumer prices recorded their biggest increase in nearly four years in January as households paid more for gasoline and other goods, suggesting inflation pressures could be picking up. The Labor Department said on Wednesday its Consumer Price Index jumped 0.6 percent last month after gaining 0.3 percent in December. January’s increase in the CPI was the largest since February 2013. In the 12 months through January, the CPI increased 2.5 percent, the biggest year-on-year gain since March 2012. Inflation is trending higher as prices for energy goods and other commodities rebound as global demand picks up. The Fed has a 2 percent inflation target and tracks a different inflation measure which is currently at 1.7 percent. Gradually firming inflation and a tightening labor market could allow the Fed to raise interest rates at least twice this year.

Total household debt climbed to $12.58 trillion at the end of 2016, an increase of $266 billion from the third quarter. For all of 2016, household debt ballooned by $460 billion — the largest increase in almost a decade. That means the debt loads of Americans are flirting with 2008 levels, when total consumer debt reached a record high of $12.68 trillion, just prior to the Great Recession. Mortgage originations increased to the highest level since the Great Recession. Student loan debt balances rose by $31 billion in the fourth quarter to a total of $1.31 trillion. Auto loans jumped by $22 billion as new auto loan originations for the year climbed to a record high. Credit card debts rose by $32 billion to hit $779 billion. But while these increases may sound alarming, there is one big difference between now and 2008, according to the Federal Reserve: Fewer delinquencies. At the end of 2016, 4.8% of debts were delinquent, compared to 8.5% of total household debt in the third quarter of 2008. There were also less bankruptcy filings — a little more than 200,000 consumers had a bankruptcy added to their credit report in the final quarter of last year, a 4% drop from the same quarter in 2015.

The Dow, S&P 500 and Nasdaq soared to record highs on Wednesday, the fifth-straight day of all-time highs. It’s the first time all three major market averages have achieved that feat since January 1992, according to a FactSet analysis provided to CNNMoney. The Dow has skyrocketed an incredible 2,279 points since the presidential election. The tech-dominated Nasdaq is in the midst of its biggest string of records since the dotcom bubble, despite predictions that Trump would be bad for tech stocks..Asked on Wednesday why stocks have gone up, Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen said investors are “likely anticipating shifts in fiscal policy that will stimulate growth and perhaps raise earnings.”

Israel

President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made their debut Wednesday as chummy partners preparing to tackle the Middle East’s toughest challenges side by side. Netanyahu beamed at his new American counterpart and declared him the best friend Israel could possibly wish for, while Trump offered lofty praise for Israel, denounced the Iranian nuclear deal and declined to back a two-state solution — a longstanding, bipartisan U.S. policy that the Israeli Prime Minister has resisted. But Trump also made clear that he would not give Israel carte blanche, taking a harder line on some issues than he had during the campaign. “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit,” Trump told his counterpart. He said Wednesday he’d “love” to see the US Embassy move to Jerusalem but offered no indication it would happen in the near future, as he had promised before he stepped into office.

Islamic State

The US Special Operations head said Tuesday that the US and its allies had eliminated more than 60,000 ISIS fighters. The estimate represents a sharp increase over recent numbers provided by the U.S. and its allies. The US-led coalition has ramped up airstrikes against the terror group’s self-declared capital in Raqqa, Syria, in recent weeks, while Iraqi troops, backed by US air power, have continued their assault on Mosul. They have so far succeeded in driving ISIS from the eastern part of Iraq’s second-largest city. Coalition leaders have said that thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed in the battle for Mosul. Multiple American officials say that the Pentagon does not officially tally body counts.

Security forces in Pakistan killed dozens of militants and arrested scores of people Friday after an ISIS suicide bombing at a Sufi shrine in the south of the country killed at least 88 people. The attack, which was claimed by the Islamic State, happened at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a 13th century Muslim saint, in the town of Sehwan in Sindh province Thursday. At least 20 children were among the dead. Meanwhile, the death toll in an Islamic State car bombing at an auto dealership in the Iraqi capital Baghdad rose to 59 Friday, with 66 other people injured, the AP reported. Authorities said four other attacks in the Baghdad area Thursday killed eight people and wounded about 30. The Islamic State launched a string of attacks in Baghdad following setbacks in areas including Mosul, where U.S.-backed Iraqi troops have been engaged in an operation to retake the city from the militants since October.

Syria

Russian warplanes and the aircraft of dictator Bashar al-Assad are still bombing civilians and civilian infrastructure in opposition areas of Syria. They are also attacking U.S.-backed opposition forces and consolidating Assad’s grip on major parts of the battered country, even as a United Nations-sponsored effort to produce peace in Syria staggers toward a Geneva meeting on Feb. 23. Behind a façade of preparations for peace talks, the scale of attacks is going back up again after a decline following the fall of the rebel stronghold of east Aleppo City last December. Assad’s rag-tag military and militia is bolstered by thousands of Iranian and Iranian-trained foreign irregulars and members of radical Hezbollah.

Russia

The Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov on Wednesday morning was spotted 40 miles closer to the U.S. — and not far from a Navy submarine base in Connecticut, a U.S. official told Fox News. The ship was spotted 30 miles south of Groton, Conn., but it remained in international waters. The U.S. territorial boundary extends 12 miles from the coast. As of Friday, the Leonov is currently “loitering” off the coast of Norfolk, Va., home to the largest naval base in the world. The spy ship is armed with surface-to-air missiles, but its main function is to intercept communications and collect data on U.S. Navy sonar capability. This was the furthest north the Viktor Leonov had ever traveled up the eastern seaboard. The Russian spy ship’s venture near the U.S. mainland follows other recent Russian provocations — four Russian jets buzzed a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Black Sea on Friday, coming within 200 yards of USS Porter. The Russian jets had their identifying transponders turned off and ignored repeated radio calls from the American warship.

Moscow has deployed a cruise missile in an apparent treaty violation, a senior military official told CNN Tuesday. The move is just the latest in a string of Russian provocations in the early days of the Trump administration, which has called for warmer relations with the Kremlin. The ground-launched cruise missile seems to run counter to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. “The Russian Federation remains in violation of its INF Treaty obligations not to possess, produce or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 to 5,500 kilometers, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles,” acting spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement issued Tuesday.

France

Police in Paris are struggling to cope with the fallout from a plague of riots which have kicked off in the city’s northern suburbs, reports RedFlagNews.com. Five large areas have been reduced to no-go areas for the past five nights as masked men continue to cause mayhem on the streets. Now there are fears the fallout from allegations of police brutality could spread all over the country as unrest in the city grows. Residents have been on lockdown as armed police try to tackle the rioters who have caused millions of pounds of damage. Police were hit with Molotov cocktails and the heavy metal balls used in the French game Petanque. The areas of Aulnay-Sous-Bois, Aulnay, Argenteuil, Bobigny and Tremblay-en-France in the Saint-Seine-Denis district have all been affected. The area of Paris currently crippled by riots is estimated to be around 33% Muslim. Monday night, witnesses claimed that rioters shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ during the violent protests. The violent anti-police protests spread from the suburbs into the center of Paris on Wednesday night.

Weather

One man was killed in Vermont Thursday as the latest in a succession of winter storms began to make its way out of the Northeast and New England, where it piled onto the feet of snow that had already fallen. More than a foot of snow fell quickly in Maine, a state that was already digging out from several feet of snow in the past week. In New Hampshire, authorities warned residents to clear snow from the roofs of their homes and businesses or risk roof collapses under the weight of more snow. All across the region, customers swarmed stores in search of shovels, roof rakes and snow blowers, but those items quickly sold out.

A line of severe storms spawned at least six tornados, injured at least seven and caused damage in southeastern Texas Tuesday morning near the Houston metro area. In Van Vleck, Texas, recreational vehicles were flipped and structural damage was reported along a path approximately a mile long. The Associated Press said seven people were transported to local hospitals with minor injuries in the town of about 1,400 located some 70 miles southwest of Houston. Tops of trees were twisted off and at least one home was completely torn apart. Southwest of Houston, roof damage to homes and businesses was reported near Stafford, Texas, due to a confirmed EF0 tornado. An EF2 tornado was confirmed south of Rosenberg, Texas. CenterPoint energy reported that nearly 21,000 customers lost power in the Houston metro area in the aftermath of the storms.

The central and eastern U.S. will likely experience spring fever late this week and through the Presidents Day holiday weekend. The warmer-than-average temperatures may break numerous records. Many of these areas have seen fairly mild temperatures recently, and this trend will continue into late February. This surge of mild temperatures will last for several days for areas east of the Rockies, making it feel more like spring than mid-February.

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