Thursday, June 25, 2009

U.S. calls for new approach in Doha trade talks

By Jonathan Lynn
GENEVA (Reuters) - The United States called on Thursday for a new approach to concluding the long-running Doha round to free up world trade. U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said Washington wanted to negotiate directly with key trading partners in the World Trade Organization talks as the traditional multilateral approach was not working. Major emerging countries said they would reject calls for bilateral concessions.
"We believe we have to start with an honest assessment that continuing on the same path that we have engaged in for the last three rounds will most likely yield the same result and that would be a failure to come to a successful conclusion," Kirk told a news conference.
From the current incomplete package of deals it was clear what the United States would give up but hard to see exactly what it would gain, he said, given the many exceptions to an overall agreement for various countries, making the deal opaque.
"We think getting more clarity around that may be the key to helping us find a solution to a way forward," Kirk said after a meeting of ministers at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Kirk has also called on big emerging countries to open their markets further to foreign goods to help secure a deal in the Doha talks, launched in late 2001 to help poor countries prosper through trade.
But the trade ministers from India, Brazil and South Africa, meeting on the sidelines of the OECD, rejected that call and said any renewed dialogue must be part of a "transparent and inclusive multilateral process."
"At this final stage of negotiations, in the midst of the worst economic environment since the Great Depression of the 1930s, it would be unreasonable and unrealistic to assume that further unilateral concessions from developing countries will be forthcoming, especially in the context of the current economic crisis," the three ministers said in a statement.
Developing countries fear they could be strongarmed into an unbalanced deal through a one-on-one approach.
The Doha talks have been effectively on ice since a meeting of ministers in July failed to clinch an outline deal.
A number of positive comments in recent weeks, not least from Kirk and his new Indian counterpart Anand Sharma, have kindled hopes the talks could resume shortly.
But the differences between rich and emerging countries over process and substance underline how difficult it will be to conclude the negotiations, which WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy says are 80 percent complete.
Developing countries say they are under pressure to open up while rich countries have hedged their sensitive farm sectors around with waivers and get-outs to any deal, and EU Agriculture Commissioner Mariann Fischer Boel ruled out any new concessions.
"We have tried our very best and we don`t move," Fischer Boel told reporters in Paris after meeting the newly appointed French farm minister, Bruno Le Maire, who echoed her words.
WTO chief Lamy told the OECD meeting that completing Doha "through a multilateral negotiating process coupled with bilateral discreet contacts among players" was all the more important because trade was expected to contract by 10 percent this year -- 14 percent in developed countries and 7 percent in developing countries.
The economic crisis underlying this contraction was also giving rise to protectionist pressures, he said.  Continued...
Original article

South Carolina Governor Sanford admits extramarital affair

South Carolina Governor Sanford admits extramarital affairBy Matthew Bigg
ATLANTA (Reuters) - South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford tearfully admitted on Wednesday he had been unfaithful to his wife, likely ending any chance he might be a Republican contender for the U.S. presidency in 2012.
Sanford resigned as chairman of the Republican Governors` Association and was replaced by Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, another possible 2012 candidate.
"Any aspirations for 2012, if he had any, are certainly out of the question," said Robert Oldendick, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina.
Sanford`s confession at a tumultuous news conference ended days of speculation over his whereabouts. After he disappeared last week, his staff first said he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. It later emerged he had traveled to Argentina to be with his lover, leaving his family over Father`s Day weekend.
"I spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina," he said.
Shedding tears, Sanford apologized to his wife Jenny, his family, friends and staff when he made the shock announcement after returning on Wednesday from Buenos Aires.
Sanford`s wife Jenny said she and her husband had been undergoing a trial separation and she regretted his actions and the damage it had done to their children.
But she added in a statement: "I remain willing to forgive Mark completely his indiscretions and to welcome him back."
Sanford explained how he had "developed a relationship" with a "dear friend" from Argentina. "It began very innocently ... in just a casual e-mail back and forth," he said.
"But here recently over this last year it developed into something much more than that. And as a consequence, I hurt her. I hurt you all. I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys. I hurt friends ... I hurt a lot of different folks."
With his tearful admission and groveling apologies, Sanford became the latest member of a fast-growing club of U.S. politicians who have confessed their sexual indiscretions before a public audience.
Sanford was one of several Republican governors seen as possible 2012 presidential candidates. Others include Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Minnesota`s Tim Pawlenty, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
REPUBLICAN FORTUNES AT LOW EBB
As chairman of the governors` association Sanford has been one of the party`s most visible spokesmen when its fortunes are at a low ebb.
Last week, Senator John Ensign, another potential Republican presidential contender in 2012, announced he had an affair and resigned from the Senate leadership.  Continued...
Original article

Ahmadinejad tells Obama not to interfere in Iran

Ahmadinejad tells Obama not to interfere in IranTEHRAN (Reuters) - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called on Barack Obama on Thursday not to interfere in Iran`s internal affairs after the U.S. president said he was "appalled and outraged" by post-election violence in the Islamic state.
Iran`s tough security crackdown after its disputed June 12 presidential election, which Ahmadinejad won by a landslide according to official results, has led Obama to ramp up his previously muted criticism of Tehran.
"Mr Obama made a mistake to say those things ... our question is why he fell into this trap and said things that previously (former U.S. President George W.) Bush used to say," the semi-official Fars News Agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.
"Do you want to speak (with Iran) with this tone? If that is your stance then what is left to talk about," said Ahmadinejad.
His moderate opponents say the vote was rigged, a charge the authorities reject.
The turmoil in Iran has dimmed prospects for Obama`s engagement with Tehran over its nuclear programme, with Ahmadinejad`s government blaming Britain and the United States for fomenting violence.
Obama toughened his criticism of Iran on Tuesday for its crackdown on protesters demonstrating against the official election results, declaring scenes of death in Tehran "heartbreaking."
"In 2009, no iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to the peaceful pursuit of justice," Obama said in Washington.
But the U.S. president declined to spell out any potential consequences for Tehran of the crackdown, and said there was still "a path available" to Iran in which it could operate within the international community.
Ahmadinejad said, according to Fars: "What way of talking is this to the Iranian nation ... I tell them that all those people who voted and all the Iranian nation will stand against them."
"A country which talks of change and cooperation, why did it fall into this trap. The Iranian nation sees and hears this talk and will make its decision ... "
"I hope you avoid interfering in Iran`s affairs and express your regret in a way that the Iranian nation is informed of it," Ahmadinejad said.
He was speaking in the port town of Assaluyeh, where he was inaugurating a petrochemical plant.
(Reporting by Hossein Jaseb and Zahra Hosseinian; writing by Fredrik Dahl)
Original article

U.S. winning WTO ruling on China`s film barriers

By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States appears to have won a victory against Chinese barriers to imported films, books and recorded music in a preliminary World Trade Organization ruling not yet made public.
"We`ve always felt like we`ve had a pretty strong case on the matter," a U.S. official told Reuters. "We`re still feeling pretty good."
The official declined to provide further details because the decision is still confidential. A public ruling is expected in coming months.
A U.S. victory would mark a significant milestone in Washington`s longtime battle against piracy in China, which the United States says costs its film, music and book industries billions of dollars in lost sales every year.
However, WTO rulings are often complicated documents, giving both sides grounds to declare victory.
China is one of the fastest-growing movie markets in the world, but only allows 20 imported films per year.
That and other market access barriers creates huge Chinese demand for pirated DVDs, CDs and books, Washington argues.
The limit of 20 foreign films per year is double what China allowed before it joined the WTO in 2001.
But in a case that began in April 2007, the U.S. Trade Representative`s office said Beijing uses other measures to limit imports of films, books and recorded music that violate commitments China made to open its market.
China promised to let foreign companies to import books, newspapers, DVDs, sound recordings and films for theatrical release, but in fact only allows state-owned "monopolies and oligopolies" to do that, the United States said.
Beijing also has not followed through on a commitment to give foreign companies distribution rights within China and has violated a WTO rule requiring that foreign books, music and films receive the same treatment as their domestic counterparts, the United States said.
According to a U.S. government brief, one of China`s arguments in the case was that a film is not a "good" because it "consists of a sequence of pictures that is projected on a screen in rapid succession and accompanied by a soundtrack."
That "intangible" nature exempted films from the commitments China made on goods, Beijing argued.
U.S. lawyers ridiculed this argument, noting "the fact that a good is used to provide a service does not mean that the good is not a good."
"For example, stethoscopes are goods that may be imported. The fact that the stethoscope is subsequently commercially exploited by health care service providers in order to examine patients does not mean that the stethoscope is not a good," the U.S. lawyers said in a July 2008 brief.
Original article

U.S. Senate approves bill to triple aid to Pakistan

U.S. Senate approves bill to triple aid to Pakistan
By Paul Eckert, Asia Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Wednesday approved tripling U.S. aid to Pakistan to about $1.5 billion a year for each of the next five years, part of an American plan to fight extremism with economic development.
The $1.5 billion in annual funding includes money for Pakistani schools, the judicial system, parliament and law enforcement agencies.
"This legislation marks an important step toward sustained economic and political cooperation with Pakistan," said Senator Richard Lugar, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The bill, which includes $400 million in annual military aid for 2010-2013, passed as Pakistan's military was preparing an all-out assault on Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, an al Qaeda ally.
Mehsud has been accused of orchestrating a campaign of bombings in Pakistan, including the 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.
The push into South Waziristan on the Afghan border looms as the army is finishing off an offensive in the Swat valley, northwest of Islamabad, launched after Taliban gains raised fears for nuclear-armed Pakistan's future.
The Pakistan aid measure passed by a simple voice vote in the Senate and will have to be reconciled with a version approved by the House of Representatives on June 11.
The bills set up so-called Reconstruction Opportunity Zones in border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, from which textiles and other items can be exported duty-free to the United States.
The zones represent an effort by the U.S. government to combat al-Qaeda and Taliban recruitment of insurgents by creating jobs for unemployed youth in underdeveloped parts of the two countries.
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan told a House committee on Wednesday that the reconstruction zones that will benefit from the textile import scheme were in places where large numbers of Pakistanis had taken refuge from recent fighting.
Creating jobs in the Federally Administered tribal Areas of Pakistan (FATA) served U.S. security interests, he said.
"Americans have died because people out of work in the FATA, the western tribal areas, joined the Taliban and jobs could reduce that," said Holbrooke.
(Editing by Chris Wilson)

Source: Reuters

Netanyahu says hopes for U.S. settlement understanding

Netanyahu says hopes for U.S. settlement understanding
By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
PARIS (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday he hoped to reach an understanding with Washington over Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but an Israeli official predicted the dispute would be hard to resolve.
Echoing U.S. President Barack Obama, France's Nicolas Sarkozy urged Netanyahu to build up trust with the Palestinians by ordering a "complete freeze on settlements," a statement from the French president's office said.
After meeting Sarkozy in Paris, Netanyahu reiterated his intention to continue to build within existing settlements in the West Bank to accommodate the "natural growth" of families.
Netanyahu, who heads a right-leaning government that could be fractured if he agrees to a settlement halt, told reporters differences could occur "among the best of friends."
Western diplomats said the abrupt cancellation of Netanyahu's planned meeting in Paris on Thursday with Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, underscored the difficulty both sides faced in narrowing the rift.
Mitchell will meet instead with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Washington next Monday. "I asked for the postponement of the meeting," Netanyahu said about the talks he had planned to hold with Mitchell in the French capital.
"Mr. Mitchell agreed immediately. We believed we had to clarify several issues and statistics. The defense minister will do this on Monday in the United States," Netanyahu said.
"We will continue the contacts, with goodwill and with the intention of reaching understanding that will advance a peace process -- a diplomatic process between us and the Palestinians, and I hope between us and the rest of the Arab world."
Senior Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Netanyahu sought understanding with the Obama administration that would allow construction already under way in settlements to go forward.
One senior official who traveled with Netanyahu to Paris said "a lot of hard work" would be necessary to reach common ground with the United States, which also advocates creation of a Palestinian state.
Netanyahu says such a country must be demilitarized and recognize Israel as a Jewish state, conditions Palestinians reject.
"JOINT DECISION"
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said the Mitchell-Barak meeting was a "joint decision" and talks between Netanyahu and the envoy had not yet been rescheduled.
The rare clouds in the U.S.-Israeli relationship seemed to overshadow Netanyahu's three-day visit to Europe, which also included talks in Rome, where Italian leaders prodded him to resolve the dispute.
In lieu of a full settlement freeze, Netanyahu has said he would not build additional enclaves in the territory, captured by Israel in a 1967 war and which Palestinians seek for a state. Continued...
Source: Reuters

NY governor may tell troopers to round up senators

NY governor may tell troopers to round up senators
By Joan Gralla
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York Governor David Paterson warned on Wednesday that if state senators go home without enacting bills, he would seek a court order to let him
tell state troopers to round them up.
"That very well might happen," the Democratic governor told Albany reporters, adding he also would order the senators' pay to be withheld from June 8 on, and block the $160 they are paid for each day they are in session.
Paterson's threats were just another twist in a dizzying series of battles over the leadership of the state Senate, which has already featured lawsuits, lockouts, shouting matches, and rival simultaneous sessions in the same chamber.
Cities, towns and counties all need the Legislature to enact routine bills that let them keep collecting taxes, for example. Also at stake is pending legislation on gay marriage, which most New Yorkers support and which already is legal in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa.
New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli warned that "chaos in the Senate" could cost local governments $750 million in lost revenues -- a sum that does not include New York City.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who is seeking a third term, needs the state to approve a sales-tax hike as well as his continued direct control of the city's school system, the nation's largest, with more than 1 million pupils.
Paterson did not say how he would take back the pay of senators who already have been paid since June 8, which was the day the Republicans launched a coup d'etat after winning over two Democrats. But one of the rebels later rejoined the Democrats, leaving the parties deadlocked at 32 to 32.
ROUND UP THE USUAL SUSPECTS!
If by tonight, state senators in both parties do not promise to stay in Albany for Thursday's special session, Paterson said he would seek a court order that morning requiring them to return.
Scoffing at Democratic senators for saying he must call both the Senate and Assembly back in session together, and not just one, Paterson said Article 4, Section 3 of the state constitution allowed him to recall only the upper chamber.
Wednesday's developments included a lawsuit the Republicans filed to force Senate staffers to give them bill jackets, the formal copies of bills, and stop locking them out of the chamber and shutting off lights and video cameras.
The Democrats rejected settling the brawl through arbitration, as the GOP proposed, as too time-consuming.
"By the time you get a panel of arbitrators together, by the time you go through the testimony and everything else, we are talking about a couple of weeks," said Senator Malcolm Smith, who says he remains the Democratic Majority Leader.
While the Democrats have proposed rotating the presidency of the Senate, the Republicans have rejected that plan.
(Reporting by Joan Gralla; Editing by Jan Paschal)

Source: Reuters

Many U.S. House Democrats want trade policy revamp

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Political pressure grew on President Barack Obama to reconsider pending trade deals with Panama, Colombia and South Korea as over 100 lawmakers called on Wednesday for a massive revamp of U.S. trade policy.
The 106 lawmakers, most of them members of Obama's Democratic party, introduced legislation requiring a comprehensive review of the economic impact of existing major trade deals, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada, before any new ones are considered.
The legislation introduced on Wednesday, called the Trade Act, also stipulates environmental and labor standards and provisions for food and product safety and human rights protections that lawmakers say were omitted from previous trade deals and now must be included.
Obama, during his presidential campaign, said he favored changing NAFTA to include stronger labor and environmental protections that many members of his party wanted. But after he became president, his top trade official, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, said this was not necessary.
Many Democrats on Capitol Hill, however, are unhappy about manufacturing job losses that they blame on trade pacts such as NAFTA and say they do not want to approve any more agreements without some safeguards.
"The idea of another trade bill, we can hardly bear the thought," said Rep. Louise Slaughter, a New York Democrat and chairwoman of the powerful House Rules Committee.
"We are not going to do it again," she told a news conference, adding that they had requested meetings with Obama and Kirk about trade policy.
Trade deals with Panama, Colombia, and South Korea were negotiated by the Bush administration, but must be ratified by Congress before they can go into effect.
The House legislation "sets a clear standard for where House Democrats are on trade," said Bill Holland, a spokesman for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group that supports the bill.
"Those three (pending) agreements are built on the NAFTA model, and today's introduction of the Trade Act is a clear rejection of that model and a call for change," he said.
Obama has moved slowly on trade while pushing more forcefully on domestic concerns like healthcare reform and climate change legislation. Last week, a senior Republican accused the Democratic president of stalling on the three pending deals.
Obama is expected to deliver a speech sometime soon outlining his views on trade. Asked if there would be any similarities with Trade Act, Maine Democrat Michael Michaud said he did not know.
"All I can tell you is .. this (legislation) is similar to what he campaigned on," he told reporters.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)

Source: Reuters

South Carolina Governor Sanford admits extramarital affair

South Carolina Governor Sanford admits extramarital affair
By Matthew Bigg
ATLANTA (Reuters) - South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford tearfully admitted on Wednesday he had been unfaithful to his wife, likely ending any chance he might be a Republican contender for the U.S. presidency in 2012.
Sanford resigned as chairman of the Republican Governors' Association and was replaced by Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, another possible 2012 candidate.
"Any aspirations for 2012, if he had any, are certainly out of the question," said Robert Oldendick, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina.
Sanford's confession at a tumultuous news conference ended days of speculation over his whereabouts. After he disappeared last week, his staff first said he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. It later emerged he had traveled to Argentina to be with his lover, leaving his family over Father's Day weekend.
Asked if he was alone during the Argentina trip, he replied: "Obviously not".
Shedding tears, Sanford apologized to his wife Jenny, his family, friends and staff when he made the shock announcement after returning on Wednesday from Buenos Aires.
Admitting his affair, Sanford said he had "developed a relationship" with a "dear friend" from Argentina.
"It began very innocently, as I suspect many of these things do, in just a casual e-mail back and forth," he said.
"But here recently over this last year it developed into something much more than that. And as a consequence, I hurt her. I hurt you all. I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys. I hurt friends ... I hurt a lot of different folks."
Sanford was one of several Republican governors seen as possible 2012 presidential candidates. Others include Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, Minnesota's Tim Pawlenty, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.
As chairman of the Republican Governors' Association, Sanford has been one of the party's most visible spokesmen at a time when its fortunes in Washington are at a low ebb.
Last week, Senator John Ensign, another potential Republican presidential contender in 2012, announced he had an affair and resigned from the Senate leadership.
HIKING STORY
Apologizing for his "selfishness", Sanford asked for "a zone of privacy" for his wife Jenny and their four sons.
He did not identify the woman in the affair, whom he said was separated from her husband and had two boys. Continued...
Source: Reuters

Obama signs $106 billion bill for Iraq, Afghan wars

Obama signs $106 billion bill for Iraq, Afghan wars
By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Wednesday signed into law a $106 billion measure to fulfill his plans to wind down the war in Iraq and ramp up operations in Afghanistan where fighting against militants is intensifying.
The bill contains $79.9 billion to continue funding the two wars through September 30. It was also loaded up with extras like $7.7 billion to address the H1N1 flu pandemic, and $1.4 billion in foreign aid for Pakistan, which is fighting Taliban militants spilling over the border from Afghanistan.
The measure was nearly derailed by Obama's request for money to close the controversial U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as well as for $108 billion in credit lines to back the International Monetary Fund as it helps countries weather the global economic downturn.
The legislation did not include $80 million Obama wanted for closing Guantanamo and bans releasing any detainees into the United States through September 30. But it allows detainees to be brought to U.S. soil for trial.
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers demanded the White House produce a detailed plan before closing the Guantanamo prison camp. Before the legislation passed, the administration rushed to release or transfer more than a dozen detainees.
Despite fierce Republican opposition, Obama ultimately prevailed to include in the legislation provisions to extend a $100 billion credit line to the IMF and expand the U.S. contribution to the multilateral lender by $8 billion.
The legislation also endorses the IMF's plan to sell 400 tons (12.97 million ounces) of its gold reserves.
House Republicans had expressed concern the IMF would use the funds to lend to U.S. foes like Iran and Venezuela and argued that the matter should have been considered separately.
With the bill becoming law, Obama can follow through on a commitment he made with other Group of 20 member nations to add $500 billion to an IMF emergency fund for countries needing financial aid to avoid bankruptcy.
The legislation also will kick off a controversial $1 billion program to boost depressed U.S. car sales. The measure offers vouchers of up to $4,500 to consumers who trade in their less fuel-efficient vehicles for ones that get better mileage.
(Editing by Chris Wilson)

Source: Reuters

U.S. and Venezuela to restore expelled ambassadors

U.S. and Venezuela to restore expelled ambassadors
By Enrique Andres Pretel
MARACAY, Venezuela (Reuters) - The United States and Venezuela will soon reinstate ambassadors expelled in a diplomatic spat last year, a sign of warmer relations between President Hugo Chavez and what he calls the U.S. "empire."
Leftist Chavez has toned down his strident criticism of U.S. foreign policy since Barack Obama took office in January, partly because the U.S. president is popular in Latin America in contrast to his predecessor George W. Bush.
Obama, in turn, has pledged to engage with countries considered problematic by the United States.
Venezuela, one of the United States' top crude oil suppliers, said its envoy would be back in Washington this week. A source at the U.S. State Department said Ambassador Patrick Duddy will return to Caracas, but did not say when.
"We have a very clear position regarding this subject and we are prepared to move forward," Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said in a statement confirming the return of the ambassadors.
Chavez and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had agreed in April they would work to reinstate the envoys.
Along with his close friend Fidel Castro of Cuba and other Latin American leaders, Chavez often says he respects Obama. The Venezuelan joked earlier this month that Obama was more left-wing than he was for effectively nationalizing General Motors -- a reference to the large stake the U.S. government now owns as part of auto giant's bankruptcy.
The announcement about the envoys came as leaders from Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua, who are all critical of the U.S. influence in Latin America, gathered in Venezuela for a summit of an alternative trade alliance started by Chavez.
Despite the warmer tone and a handshake with Obama at a summit of countries in the Americas in April, Chavez is still committed to countering Washington's global influence and recently accused U.S. spies of plotting to kill him without Obama's knowledge.
BOLIVIAN DISPUTE TRIGGERED EXPULSION
Chavez expelled the U.S. envoy to Caracas in September and Washington responded by kicking out Venezuela's ambassador in a dispute involving charges by Venezuelan ally Bolivia that Washington was meddling in its internal affairs.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said that since Clinton and Chavez spoke during the Summit of Americas "both our governments have worked toward the goal of returning ambassadors to our respective capitals," adding "We are currently taking the necessary measures to accomplish this goal."
Venezuela's ambassador, Bernardo Alvarez, is expected to return to Washington on Friday, a source at the Foreign Ministry said.
Bolivia and the United States are still without their respective envoys, but U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon visited La Paz last month as the two countries tried to patch up relations.
The United States will also send an ambassador to Syria for the first time in four years, a State Department official said on Wednesday, in a further sign of Obama's commitment to engaging with long-time foes.[nN24195241] Continued...
Source: Reuters

Obama steps up push for healthcare reform this year

Obama steps up push for healthcare reform this year
By David Alexander and Donna Smith
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama stepped up his push for healthcare reform in the face of resistance on Capitol Hill, telling state governors on Wednesday "we need to get it done this year".
Obama, in a television interview aired early in the day and again later after meeting a group of state governors, insisted he was convinced the government could overhaul the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system this year.
"Yes, absolutely," Obama said on ABC's "Good Morning America," "We're going to get it done."
Obama, who has invested substantial political capital in the healthcare reform issue, was to hold a televised town hall-style question-and-answer session at the White House Wednesday evening. The event was to be taped at 8 p.m. EDT and aired on ABC News later in the evening.
The United States spends some $2.5 trillion annually on healthcare, or about 16 percent of its gross domestic product, but trails many developed countries on important measures of health. Some 47 million Americans are uninsured and have little access to the healthcare system.
Obama's campaign-style push for his reform plan comes amid strains among the diverse interest groups, from doctors to insurance plans, that have so far bonded together to seek a healthcare overhaul.
Insurers and doctors have expressed concern about Obama's push for a public insurance option to compete with private insurers, while others have objected to the cost of the trillion-dollar program and a proposal to pay for it in part by raising taxes on some employer-paid insurance benefits.
"Obama says public option, he means government-run health care," Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said in a statement. "Without question, the government takeover of healthcare will diminish individual freedom and quality in our health care system."
WAIT AND SEE ON TAX HIKES
In an interview with ABC News, Obama declined to say if he would sign a bill that taxes healthcare benefits to pay for healthcare reforms.
"I'm going to wait and see what ideas they come up with. I suspect that when they start seeing what the options are, they might end up concluding that the options we're presenting are the best ones," he said.
Obama said he would prefer to reduce tax deductions for the wealthiest to pay for the overhaul.
Members of the Senate Finance Committee met behind closed doors to discuss the cost of the bill and possible compromises needed to gain some Republican support.
Committee Chairman Max Baucus said it was "long road" to reaching agreement because of the complexities of the sweeping legislation. Panel members are trying to bring 10-year cost estimates down to less than $1 trillion from a $1.6 trillion early estimate for the package.
Democratic Senator Kent Conrad, who is a member of the Finance panel and also chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said the package total now stood at about $1.2 trillion. Continued...
Source: Reuters

Consumer watchdog idea hit as Congress eyes reform

Consumer watchdog idea hit as Congress eyes reform
Geithner's call for reform
Play Video
By Kevin Drawbaugh
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans lined up with the banking industry on Wednesday in attacking a Democratic proposal for a new U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Agency at a congressional hearing focused on a key component of the Obama administration's broad plan for financial regulation reform.
As Congress intensified its scrutiny of the Obama plan, Republican members of the House Financial Services Committee questioned the idea of splitting consumer protection from government oversight of the banking business' health.
"The wisdom of bifurcating consumer protection and safety and soundness regulation as is done in the administration's proposal is questionable," said Representative Spencer Bachus, the top Republican on the House committee.
But Democrats and supporters of creating a new agency replied that decades of combining those two roles -- within the Federal Reserve and elsewhere -- have failed to protect consumers from confusing and deceptive lending by banks.
"This structure has not worked," said Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor who is also chairman of the Congressional Oversight Panel of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) set up last year to bail out distressed banks.
She urged lawmakers to set up a new, independent agency to protect consumers from "tricks and traps" set by banks.
President Barack Obama last week unveiled a sweeping package of reforms to rewrite the rules for banks and capital markets in response to a severe financial crisis that has dragged down economies worldwide for more than a year.
Representative Barney Frank, chairman of the House committee, said at the hearing that he expects the panel to write legislation next month on the proposed consumer agency, while also addressing several other reform proposals.
He told reporters outside the hearing that he tentatively expects the committee to be handling "anywhere between four and six" bills on financial reforms that would then "all go on the floor of the House in one bill."
Obama wants to enact new laws by the end of the year. Democrats have consistently said that could be done, although some analysts foresee debate on the matter running into 2010.
SUBPRIME MORTGAGES
A key issue in the financial crisis that engulfed the U.S. economy last year was the enormous amount of debt shouldered by Americans during a real estate bubble fueled by subprime mortgages that many borrowers could not afford or understand.
As defaults and foreclosures rose last year, exotic financial instruments backed by shaky mortgages broke down and the capital markets froze for a time amid sudden uncertainty about the condition of banks' balance sheets.
The combined effects helped drag the United States into a recession that continues.
The $700 billion TARP and other bailout programs have helped save the banks the problems they created for themselves. Now the administration is pushing for changes in regulation designed to prevent such issues from recurring. Continued...
Source: Reuters

"Hard work" settling dispute with Obama: Israel

By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
PARIS (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday he hoped to reach understanding with the United States but an official said "hard work" was needed to heal a rift over Jewish settlement growth in the West Bank.
A senior Israeli official who traveled with Netanyahu to Paris, where he met French President Nicolas Sarkozy but canceled a meeting with a top U.S. envoy, said "a lot of hard work" was needed to reach common ground with Washington on the settlement issue.
U.S. President Barack Obama wants Netanyahu to declare a total settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank, territory where Palestinians hope to establish a state.
Netanyahu has said he intends to build further within existing blocs to accommodate what he calls "natural growth" in settler families.
Speaking after his talks with Sarkozy, Netanyahu told reporters that differences could occur "among the best of friends" and said Israel was in the process of clarifying its settlement policy to Washington.
Western diplomats said the abrupt cancellation of Netanyahu's planned meeting in Paris on Thursday with Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, underscored the difficulty both sides faced bridging their differences.
Mitchell will meet instead with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Washington next Monday. "I asked for the postponement of the meeting," Netanyahu said about the talks he had planned to hold with Mitchell in the French capital.
"Mr. Mitchell agreed immediately. We believed we had to clarify several issues and statistics. The defense minister will do this on Monday in the United States," Netanyahu said.
"We will continue the contacts, with goodwill and with the intention of reaching understanding that will advance a peace process -- a diplomatic process between us and the Palestinians, and I hope between us and the rest of the Arab world."
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly called the decision for Mitchell to meet Barak before Netanyahu a "joint decision." He said a Netanyahu meeting with the U.S. envoy had not yet been rescheduled.
Kelly said there had been a "change of thinking" but gave no specifics.
UNDERSTANDING
Israel's differences with the U.S. over settlement policy seemed to overshadow Netanyahu's three-day visit to Europe.
French and Italian leaders also prodded him to resolve the dispute over settlements, though the Israeli leader characterized the tone of their meetings as "warm."
In Paris, Sarkozy "urged Israel to take, without delay, all possible measures to encourage trust, starting with a complete freeze on settlements," a statement from the French leader's office said. Continued...
Source: Reuters

Key senator sketches U.S. immigration reform plans

By Jeremy Pelofsky
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. immigration laws can be overhauled this year despite a crowded legislative agenda, a key senator said on Wednesday as he outlined plans for putting 12 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship and boosting border security.
Senator Charles Schumer, who heads the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, said he wants illegal immigrants to quickly register with the government but acknowledged they were unlikely to do so until they see how they could stay in the country legally.
"The time for reform is now, our system is badly broken," Schumer told the Migration Policy Institute. "The road ahead will not be smooth and I can assure you it will not be straight."
Still, the Democrat expressed confidence that a bipartisan bill would reach the Senate floor soon.
Schumer's remarks come a day before President Barack Obama holds a closed-door meeting with lawmakers to discuss how to follow through on his campaign pledge to address illegal immigration and improve border security.
The White House has cast some doubt on the chances for immigration reform passing this year though Democrats who control Congress are plowing ahead. Obama has pressed lawmakers to first finish healthcare and climate change bills.
Schumer said he would tell Obama at the meeting that "all the fundamental building blocks are in place to pass comprehensive immigration reform this session and, even possibly, later this year."
Republicans have seized on the timing disconnect between the White House and Democrats. Senator John Cornyn, who is the ranking Republican on the immigration subcommittee, on Tuesday urged Obama to first submit his own plan.
"Until the White House decides to get serious about this issue, anything Senator Schumer or anyone else proposes would seem to be dead on arrival," said Cornyn spokeswoman Tina Gray.
Schumer's plan calls for control of the vast U.S. borders within a year and getting the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country to register and take steps toward becoming citizens.
"Illegal aliens, however, will never register their presence unless the government provides some mechanism for these individuals to eventually obtain legal status and a path to citizenship upon acknowledging that they broke the law and agreeing to pay their debt to society," Schumer said.
(Editing by Xavier Briand)

Source: Reuters

U.S. to appoint ambassador to Syria after hiatus

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government will send an ambassador to Syria after a four-year hiatus as President Barack Obama moves to improve ties between the two countries, the State Department said on Wednesday.
"As you know, we're prepared to move forward with Syria to advance our interests through direct and continuing dialogue," said State Department spokesman Ian Kelly.
"Of course, you know that we continue to have concerns about Syria's role in this region, and we think one way to address those concerns is to have an ambassador in Damascus."
The move "reflects the administration's recognition of the important role Syria plays in the region ...," Kelly told reporters, adding that Washington had informed Damascus of its decision on Tuesday.
Another State Department official said the process was in its very early stages and the administration had not yet chosen a nominee for the ambassador's post.
Obama is working to rehabilitate U.S. relations with the Islamic world and the Arab Middle East.
Washington withdrew its ambassador from Syria in 2005 to protest the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. Syria denied any involvement in the killing.
A U.N. investigation into the assassination initially implicated several Syrian and Lebanese officials, but later reports have been more circumspect. A special U.N. tribunal set up to try suspects in Hariri's killing began work in The Hague in March.
Relations between Syria and the United States improved after Obama took office in January and U.S. officials said he was committed to seeking a peace deal between Syria and Israel as part of an overall Middle East peace deal.
The Syrian government, however, remains under U.S. sanctions, partly because of what the United States describes as a Syrian role in helping insurgents infiltrate Iraq.
The decision to appoint a U.S. ambassador follows a series of recent visits to Damascus by high-level U.S. military and diplomatic delegations.
(Reporting by Deborah Charles and Arshad Mohammed; editing by Chris Wilson)

Source: Reuters

Obama to meet pope for first time on July 10

Obama to meet pope for first time on July 10
By Daniel Flynn
VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama, whose support for abortion rights and stem cell research has angered some Catholics, is due to meet Pope Benedict for the first time on July 10 during a visit to Italy.
Vatican officials said the U.S. leader would have an afternoon audience with the pope in the Vatican after the conclusion of a July 8-10 summit of Group of Eight industrial nations, scheduled for the Italian city of L'Aquila.
"The pope is ready to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama in the afternoon of July 10," deputy Vatican spokesman Ciro Benedettini told Reuters.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters in Washington the pope and the president would "discuss a range of issues, including their shared belief in the dignity of all people."
Obama has angered some American Roman Catholics with his support for abortion rights and his decision to lift restrictions on stem cell research, which is likely to be a topic of discussion at the July meeting.
In 2001, the late Pope John Paul II urged then-U.S. President George W. Bush not to allow stem cell research.
The Vatican and Italian Church leaders condemned Obama's decision in March to lift restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research put in place by Bush.
The Catholic Church, other religious groups and abortion opponents oppose such research -- which scientists hope can lead to cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's -- because it involves the destruction of embryos.
Obama's subsequent invitation to speak at Notre Dame, a premier U.S. Catholic university, sparked criticism last month. While some heckled Obama during his speech, his appeal for a "fair-minded" discussion on abortion was received with several standing ovations.
The G8 summit is due to discuss a response to the international economic crisis and global warming. Its location was moved to L'Aquila in a sign of solidarity with victims from an April earthquake that killed nearly 300 people and devastated large parts of the city.
(Reporting by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Lin Noueihed and Peter Cooney)

Source: Reuters
 

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