WEEK ONE HUNDRED & FORTY-FOUR

October 17, 2011

1.     The Occupy Wall Street movement has close to $300,000, as well as storage space in lower Manhattan loaded with donated supplies--it stared down city officials to hang onto its makeshift headquarters, showed its muscle October 15th with a big Times Square demonstration, and found leagues of activists demonstrating in solidarity across the country and around the world:

  • There are signs of confidence, but also signs of tension, among the demonstrators at Zuccotti Park (the epicenter of the movement that began a month ago), but Wall Street protesters are intent on hanging onto the momentum they gained from October 15th's worldwide demonstrations, which drew hundreds of thousands of people, mostly in the U.S. and Europe--they are filling a cavernous space a block from Wall Street, donated by the United Federation of Teachers, with donated goods to help sustain their nearly month-long occupation of a private park nearby, and they have an account at Amalgamated Bank, which bills itself as "the only 100 percent union-owned bank in the U.S."

2.     The chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee has ordered his staff to begin an investigation into allegations that some of the nation's largest lending institutions have cheated veterans and taxpayers out of hundreds of millions of dollars by charging illegal fees in home refinancing loans:

  • Committee staff members met October 14th with officials from the Department of Veterans' Affairs to discuss the charges, which are made in a whistle-blowing lawsuit unsealed this month by a federal court in Atlanta--under a V.A. program, veterans are able to refinance with loans guaranteed by the government, enabling them to lower their interest rates or shorten the terms of their mortgages, and the rules prohibit lenders from charging attorney fees.

3.     A federal judge has thrown out a key part of an Interior Department rule concerning the threat to polar bears caused by global warming:

  • U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled that the Bush administration did not complete a required environmental review when it said that the bears' designation as threatened in 2008 could not be used as a back-door way to control greenhouse gases blamed for global warming--the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group that filed a lawsuit over the 2008 rule, said that the decision puts the fate of polar bears back in the hands of the Obama administration and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

4.     Bowing to political necessity, President Obama pushed Congress to pass his jobs plan in what he called "bite-size pieces" that might prove tougher for Republican lawmakers to reject than the $447 billion package voted down by the Senate last week:

  • Obama's advisors had initially presented the jobs plan as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, but that strategy collapsed last week after Senate Democrats failed to muster the 60 votes necessary to break a filibuster and force a vote on a plan that has become the centerpiece of Obama's agenda--Obama rolled out a new message at the opening of his three-day bus tour through North Carolina and Virginia: pass specific elements of the bill, one by one.

5.     A week ago markets were soaring on hopes that a fix for Europe's debt crisis was near, but today, stocks had their worst drop in two weeks after German leaders cast doubt on how fast that process would be:

  • Expectations that resolution to the crisis could be reached at a European summit in Brussels on October 23rd helped lift the S&P's 500 index to its biggest gain in two years last week, but Germany's finance chief, Wolfgang Schaeuble, said that those expectations were too optimistic--it was the worst day for U.S. stock indices since October 3rd, when each hit a low for the year, and the Dow Jones industrial average dropped 247.49 points.

6.     A bill to toughen federal safety regulations of oil and gas pipelines has passed the Senate after a Republican senator opposed to government regulation dropped his opposition to the measure:

  • The bill was approved only a few hours after Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky abruptly announced that he was ending his opposition--the bill would increase penalties for safety violations, require the installation of automatic shut-off valves on new transmission lines, and authorize more safety inspections, among other provisions.

October 18, 2011     The Obama administration moved to roll back numerous rules that apply to hospitals and other healthcare providers after concluding that the standards were obsolete or overly burdensome to the industry:

  • Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said that the proposed changes, which would apply to more than 6,000 hospitals, would save providers nearly $1.1 billion a year without creating any "consequential risks for patients"--in January, President Obama ordered his appointees to modify or revoke rules that were outmoded, ineffective, or "excessively burdensome".

October 19, 2011

1.     Despite frosty relations with the titans of Wall Street, President Obama has managed to raise far more money from the financial and banking sector than Mitt Romney or any other Republican presidential candidate, according to new fundraising data:

  • Obama's key advantage is his ability to collect bigger checks from fewer donors, because he raises money for both his own campaign committee and for the Democratic National Committee, which will aid in his re-election effort--Obama retains a persistent reservoir of support among a number of Democratic financiers who have backed him since he was an underdog presidential candidate, and he can also draw upon the unique abilities of an incumbent president to raise money from avid supporters.

2.     President Obama's top political advisor is giving GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney credit for something he would rather not be thanked for--inspiring the national healthcare overhaul:

  • David Axelrod says that the Obama health plan was largely modeled on the system Romney shepherded into place as Massachusetts' governor--Romney says the plan was specific to Massachusetts and not meant to work on a national scale.

3.     In a rare display of U.S. muscle, the U.S.'s top diplomat, senior-most military officer, and its spy chief will arrive in Islamabad today for a tense two-day visit that is likely to focus on U.S. accusations of Pakistani support for an Afghan insurgent group that the U.S. blames for thousands of deaths inside Afghanistan:

  • The atmosphere is already poisonous between the two "allies", and there is little expectation that the visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and CIA Director David Petraeus, the former military commander in Afghanistan, will change that--the visit comes as the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan has launched a new campaign in that country's eastern Khost province, which borders Pakistan's North Waziristan region, where the U.S. says the Haqqanis (a network of insurgents) are based.

4.     Raising hopes for a new era of rapprochement with nuclear-armed North Korea, the Obama administration said that it would sit down with the reclusive regime for a fresh round of atomic weapons' talks and appoint a full-time envoy with the task of persuading Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program:

  • As Washington intensifies its engagement of Pyongyang, it is turning to seasoned diplomat Glyn Davies to lead the efforts--Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, will replace Stephen Bosworth, though both will meet next week with the North Korean delegation led by Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan.

5.     President Obama is promoting parts of his jobs bill that could help veterans and wounded troops find jobs:

  • Obama wants Congress to approve a separate tax credit worth thousands of dollars for businesses that hire veterans who have been out of work for at least six months, including those with disabilities--Obama was joined at a military facility in Hampton, Virginia, by his wife, Michelle, who anounced that the American Logistics Assn. has committed to hiring 25,000 veterans and military spouses by the end of 2013.

October 20, 2011

1.     The secular and the religious, the politicians and the militants, all celebrated the demise of a dictator after fighters killed Moammar Gadhaffi and ended once and for all his four decades of repression in Libya, but while congratulations poured in from around the world, the Obama administration and others tempered the celebrations with a dose of caution, conscious that Libya's formerly ragtag band of rebels must now avoid falling prey to extremists among themselves or the type of political infighting that has highjacked the hopes of previous revolutions:

  • Gadhaffi's death clears a cloud over Libya's shaky interim government while focusing new scrutiny on the former rebels and exiles now in charge and on possible candidates to lead a permanent government--despite a public embrace of Libya's transitional leadership, the U.S. remains leery of some of the motives of those who have promised a quick move to elections and democracy.

2.     At least $7 million in federal stimulus money intended to provide jobs to unemplolyed Oregonians instead paid wages to 254 foreign workers, federal investigators have concluded:

  • The money was for forest cleanup jobs in central Oregon where thousands of experienced workers were idle, but the contractors told federal regulators they could not find enough local workers for the jobs;
  • In a report on the investigation this week, the Department of Labor inspector general found that contractors who brought in foreign workers violated no laws or regulations, but used legal loopholes to hire them--the federal investigation looked at 14 contractors to clear federal forests in central Oregon, and the contractors were controlled by four Oregon companies, Medford Cutting Edge Forestry, Ponderosa Reforestations, Summit Forestry, and G.E. Forestry, and all hired foreign workers, according to the report, though they did not all handle hiring in the same way.

3.     Despite a campaign-style push this week by President Obama, the Senate shuttled pared-back jobs legislation aimed at helping state and local governments avoid layoffs of teachers and firefighters:

  • The 50-50 vote came in relation to a motion to simply take up the bill and fell well short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster--Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and Independent Joe Leiberman of Connecticut broke with Obama on the vote.

4.     The Obama administration delivered a blunt warning that the U.S. will do what it must to go after militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan, whether Pakistan helps or not:

  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton led an unusually large U.S. delegation for two days of talks with civilian and military leaders who have resisted previous U.S. demands to take a harder tack against militants who attack American soldiers and interests in Afghanistan--she said that the U.S. expects the Pakistani government, military, and intelligence services to take the lead in fighting Pakistan-based militants and in encouraging Afghan militants to reconcile.

5.     The U.S. military closed the second of its three regional headquarters in Iraq, redeploying 750 soldiers, consolidating command of countrywide operations under a single Army unit, and maintaining a rapid pace of withdrawal ten weeks before the expiration of its security agreement with Baghdad.

6.     The economy appears slightly healthier than many had feared it was a few weeks ago, raising hopes that it can end the year on an upward slope:

  • Most economists now expect modest growth for the rest of the year, but they caution that it's unlikely to be strong enough to significantly lower the unemployment rate.

7.     Fifty percent of U.S. workers earned less than $26,364 last year, reflecting a growing income gap between the nation's rich and poor, the government reported:

  • There were fewer jobs, and overall pay was trending down, except for the nation's wealthiest--the number of people making $1 million or more soared by more than 18 percent from 2009, the Social Security Administration said, citing payroll data based on W-2 forms submitted by empoyers to the IRS.

October 21, 2011

1.     President Obama said that the last U.S. soldier will leave Iraq by the end of the year, bringing to an end a nearly nine-year military engagement that cost the lives of 4,400 troops and more than $1 trillion, divided the U.S. public, and came to define America's role in the world:

  • In a video conference with Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, Obama told him of the administration's decision, which grows out of an inability of the U.S. and Iraq to come to an agreement on leaving a few thousand military trainers in the country--if Obama's announcement was not a surprise, it was freighted with symbolism, drawing a line under a conflict that has engaged the U.S. for close to a decade and fulfilling a pledge that the president made during the 2008 campaign to wind down the war.

2.     A federal judge dismissed Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's lawsuit that accused the Obama administration of failing to enforce immigration laws or maintain control of her state's border with Mexico:

  • The dismissal by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton comes in a counter-lawsuit filed by Brewer as part of the Justice Department's challenge to Arizona's controversial immigration enforcement law--the Republican governor was seeking a court order that would require the federal government to take extra steps, such as more border fencing, to protect Arizona until the border is controlled.

3.     Democrats and Republicans are in rare accord on one thing: growers with million-dollar incomes should not reap farm subsidies:

  • Eighty-four senators, including both Oregon senators, voted to discontinue certain farm subsidies for people who make more than a million dollars in adjusted crop income--direct payments, which have long been criticized because they are paid regardless of crop prices and yields, are the subsidy targeted in the vote.

4.     The blue-chip Dow Jones index rose for a fourth straight week, boosted by a strong rally as money poured in despite uncertainty over Europe's plan to contain its government-debt crisis:

  • The Dow jumped 267.01 points, the index's highest closing levels since August 3rd--what's more, Wall Street knows that November and December historically have been strong months for the market as investors look ahead to the new year.

5.     The Senate voted to reject a Republican effort to prohibit the U.S. from prosecuting foreign terrorist suspects in civilian courts, handing a victory to President Obama:

  • By a vote of 52-47, senators turned aside a proposal by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire) that would have forced such trials to occur before military tribunals or commissions--the Obama administration has fought to continue bringing such cases in federal courts, with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Attorney General Eric Holder writing Senate leaders October 20th that the measure would deprive them of a potential weapon against terrorism and increase the risk of terrorists escaping justice.

6.     The Obama administration intensified pressure on Pakistan to do more to crack down on Islamist militants destabilizing Afghanistan, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a tough public message that extremists have been able to operate in and from Pakistan for too long:

  • For the second time in two days, Clinton pressed Pakistani authorities to step up efforts against the Haqqani militant network, which is based in the country's rugged tribal region and is blamed for attacks both inside Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan--the U.S. has gotten increasingly impatient with Pakistan's refusal to take military action against the Taliban-linked Haqqani network and its ambivalence, if not hostility, to supporting Afghanistan's attempts to reconcile Taliban fighters into society.

7.     U.S. officials confirmed that an American Predator drone took part in the airstrike that hit the convoy carrying ousted leader, Moammar Gadhaffi, but it's still unclear how he got his fatal wounds:

  • The officials said the Predator fired on the convoy as it was fleeing Sirte, and French aircraft launched guided missiles--the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operations, and NATO's top commander said that he will recommend ending the alliance's seven-month mission in Libya.
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