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Japan’s PM vows to fight on despite pressure to quit

In Uncategorized on June 1, 2010 at 11:42 am

TOKYO, June 1, 2010 (AFP) – Japan’s embattled prime minister insisted Tuesday he would stay in his job despite press speculation he may step down ahead of upper house elections next month.

Centre-left leader Yukio Hatoyama, who took power in a landslide election last August, has seen his approval ratings slide below 20 percent amid a row over a US military airbase on the southern island of Okinawa.

His U-turn decision to keep the unpopular base on Okinawa despite strong local opposition has caused a split in his three-party coalition, with the small, pacifist Social Democrats bolting the government on Sunday.

Newspaper front-pages Tuesday said Hatoyama faced growing calls from within his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) to quit.

The premier on Monday night met with political heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ secretary general who is often described as the party kingmaker and power behind the prime minister’s throne.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama (C) answers questions from journalists when he visits Miyazaki prefecture government offices to talk about measures to contain foot-and-mouth disease in Miyazaki, southern Japan, on June 1, 2010. AFP photo

Hatoyama, who was expected to meet Ozawa again later Tuesday, signalled that he wanted to stay on in his post, telling reporters: “I want to cooperate with him (Ozawa) to tackle national challenges.”

Local media, quoting party sources, said the two would discuss whether Hatoyama should resign ahead of an election for the upper house of parliament expected on July 11.

“I really work hard but I have yet to gain the people’s understanding,” the premier said Tuesday while visiting cattle farmers hit by an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in southern Japan.

“Reflecting on that, I want to have firm talks with the secretary general.”

The premier’s right-hand man, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano, ruled out Hatoyama’s resignation.

“I think it is unreasonable in the first place that people should talk about whether the prime minister should stay or leave,” Hirano told reporters.

But many analysts say Hatoyama is in a tough spot.

“His resignation is a matter of time,” said Koji Nakakita, professor of politics at Rikkyo University in Tokyo.

“He has lacked leadership. The DPJ needs coalition partners, but no party wants to join under Hatoyama. Since the approval rate has plunged to such levels, he has no option but to step down.”

Cabinet ministers professed their loyalty, even as they spoke about the government’s deep troubles.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Naoto Kan — seen as among the likely contenders for Hatoyama’s post — said: “I have been saying I want the prime minister to fulfil his duties for the full four-year tenure and my thinking hasn’t changed.”

But Kan also said Hatoyama’s handling of the Okinawa issue had damaged the government, telling journalists: “I believe almost everyone in the DPJ shares the view that we are in a very severe situation.”

Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada said: “The support rate for the DPJ has declined, and both the secretary general and I feel the wind blowing against us.

“But I think it would be wrong to think the party would be alright if we changed the leader.”

Transport Minister Seiji Maehara, another possible contender for the premier’s job, said support for the DPJ had diminished in part because both Hatoyama and Ozawa have been embroiled in political funding scandals.

But he also stressed the need for continuity in leadership. “It’s problematic if the prime minister is replaced frequently, so I want the prime minister to reflect on his past conduct and work hard.”

Hatoyama is Japan’s fourth premier in four years.

Shizuka Kamei, the minister of financial affairs who is leader of the DPJ’s remaining coalition partner, the tiny People’s New Party, said: “I’ll support him (Hatoyama) with my utmost efforts.”

Source: SGGP

Obama steps up fight against oil spill

In Uncategorized on May 29, 2010 at 5:13 am

President Barack Obama stepped up the battle against a massive slick lapping the Gulf of Mexico coast, vowing never to abandon those imperiled by the worst US oil spill.

As BP pleaded for patience to allow time for its risky, complex “top kill” to work and plug the massive leak, Obama pledged “to continue to do whatever it takes to help Americans whose livelihoods have been upended by the spill.”

The US president, clad in hiking boots and with his sleeves rolled up, ordered the number of workers feverishly trying to contain and clean up the spill along the southern US coastline to be tripled.

He toured an oil-slicked Louisiana beach, picking up tar balls to examine them, as he outlined his administration’s “historic response” to the disaster which has spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

His second trip to the region since an April 20 explosion tore through the Deepwater Horizon rig, 50 miles (80 kilometers) off shore, came as experts and residents hold their breath, hoping BP can stop the oil flowing from a fractured pipe.

Government scientists estimate some 12,000 to 19,000 barrels of crude a day have been gushing into the Gulf since the rig sank two days after the blast which killed 11 workers.

“I think the key element here is to exercise patience,” said BP’s chief operating officer Doug Suttles, adding the operation would last another 24 to 48 hours.

The British energy giant is using robotic submarines to pump heavy drilling fluids down the wellhead, hoping to drown the leak long enough to allow engineers to then seal it with cement.

“We’ll have periods where we’re pumping. We’ll have periods where we’re monitoring results of that pumping. We’ll have periods where we actually pump in this, what we call junk,” Suttles said, seeking to allay concerns over why BP had stopped the pumping several times since it began on Wednesday.

The disaster has already closed stretches of coastal fishing waters, endangering livelihoods which are also dependent on tourism, and threatening a catastrophe for Louisiana marshes, home to many rare species.

“To the people of the Gulf Coast, I know you’ve weathered your fair share of trials and tragedy,” Obama said, in a reference to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina which triggered a botched response by the former Bush administration.

“I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone. You will not be abandoned. You will not be left behind,” Obama vowed. “We are on your side and we will see this through.”

He said 20,000 people had already been deployed to contain and clean up the spill, but that he had ordered Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and US Coast Guard chief Admiral Thad Allen to “triple the manpower in places where oil has hit the shore or is within 24 hours of impact.”

Allen, who has been charged with overseeing the government’s response, said initial signs suggested BP’s “top kill” was succeeding.

“They have been able to push the hydrocarbons down with the mud. The real challenge is to put enough into the well to keep the pressure where they can put a cement plug over the top,” he said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Government data released Thursday would mean between 18.6 million gallons and 29.5 million gallons of oil have poured into the Gulf — far more than the roughly 11 million gallons of crude spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

Amid the environmental catastrophe, there were also growing fears for the health of cleanup workers exposed to the oil and chemical dispersants.

Two more crewmen aboard ships helping burn off surface oil were evacuated to hospital late Friday after falling ill, a day after the US Coast Guard announced that seven workers were evacuated for medical emergencies.

Obama said three million feet (910,000 meters) of hard boom had already been deployed in an effort to stop the oil spill reaching wetlands and beaches. But he admitted “there’s a limited amount” available.

“We’re going to try to get more boom manufactured, but that may take some time,” he said.

The commander of a federal research ship who has spent five days out at sea on the edges of the slick said a heavy smell of oil hung over the area.

“It’s a strong smell out there,” said commander Shepard Smith of the Thomas Jefferson, a 204-foot survey vessel. “It smells like freshly creosoted railroad ties.”

BP said Friday the oil spill had cost the firm about 930 million dollars, while the company’s market value has also dropped by billions.

Source: SGGP

Rich countries to give 4 billion dollars to fight deforestation

In Uncategorized on May 27, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Thai protesters vow to fight as siege looms

In Uncategorized on May 12, 2010 at 12:52 pm

BANGKOK, May 12, 2010 (AFP) – Thailand’s “Red Shirt” opposition protesters vowed Wednesday to “fight to the death” as authorities prepared to lay siege to their sprawling encampment in the capital after peace talks broke down.

The government announced it would cut off food, water and power supplies to the vast rally site in central Bangkok, urging local residents to leave as it prepared to seal off the area to prevent reinforcements arriving.

A Thai “Red Shirt” demonstrator sleeps inside a fortified camp in Bangkok. AFP photo

The mainly poor and working class Red Shirts shrugged off the tough new measures, rejecting a demand by embattled Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva for the protests to end on Wednesday.

“If you want to crack down you’re welcome at any time,” said one of the protest leaders, Jatupron Prompan. “We will fight to the death,” he said.

The Red Shirts have said they will continue their rally until deputy premier Suthep Thaugsuban is charged for his role overseeing a deadly April 10 crackdown, when armed troops attempted to clear part of the capital.

As talks between the two sides over Abhisit’s peace roadmap stalled, the authorities said they would cut off vital supplies, as well as telephone and transportation links, to the site at midnight Wednesday.

“This is the beginning of measures to fully impose the law,” said Sunsern Kaewkumnerd, a spokesman for the government unit set up to deal with the crisis, warning the authorities were ready to disperse protesters if necessary.

“The army is ready, but at this moment I don’t want to talk about a crackdown as we want to use measures to put pressure on them,” he said.

“To the residents in the area: please leave. After midnight, authorities will not allow anyone to come in,” Sunsern said, noting that some homes and foreign embassies would suffer disruption to their water and power supplies.

The movement has said it agrees to Abhisit’s reconciliation roadmap to elections on November 14, but wants to see the government take responsibility for the April 10 incident, in which 25 people lost their lives.

“None of the Red Shirts are afraid of your threats to cut water and power. We will run at soldiers with our two bare hands even if they fire at us with assault rifles,” said one protest leader, Weng Tojirakarn.

Abhisit has warned he may scrap the plan for early elections if the protesters do not leave their vast base, which has been fortified with barricades made from piles of fuel-soaked tyres, bamboo poles and razor wire.

“If the situation does not return to normal it will delay the election day, so protesters should go home on the 12th (of May),” he said Tuesday.

The Reds say the government is undemocratic because it came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote after a court ruling ousted elected allies of their hero, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who was unseated in a 2006 coup.

Their ranks were boosted over the weekend by 5,000 more supporters who arrived from the movement’s heartland in the impoverished rural northeast, defying a ban on rallies in the capital, which is under a state of emergency.

“The authorities must implement steps to make protesters suffer and leave the protest site,” a ruling party lawmaker, Sirichoke Sopa, told AFP.

“The roadmap still exists, but their demand for Suthep to turn himself in to police is not possible and not practical because he’s a political appointee,” said Sirichoke, who is close to Abhisit.

Suthep went to the Department of Special Investigation Tuesday to hear a complaint against him after the Reds demanded he turn himself in to police, but Red leaders refused to disband until a formal case was opened against him.

Twenty nine people have been killed and almost 1,000 injured in Bangkok in a series of confrontations and attacks since the protests began in mid-March, in Thailand’s worst political violence in almost two decades.

Source: SGGP

Ninth graders gear up for annual fight

In Uncategorized on May 7, 2010 at 12:37 pm

It happens every year.

Parents are exchanging information about the senior high school entrance examination (Photo: SGGP)

Although the education sector promises every graduating junior high school student will be able to attend a state senior high school, thousands of children who sit the senior high school entrance examination fight each other to get a place in a public high school. Parents and students consider the tenth grade a very important stage that will facilitate entry into a famous university.

Many parents recently queued up to apply for a seat in the extra classes conducted by the Le Hong Phong School for the Gifted and the Ly Tu Trong center.

Tran Thi Kim Ngoc of Ho Chi Minh City’s suburban Cu Chi district said she feels safer if her daughter, a good student, takes extra classes at the Ly Tu Trong center. This means the ninth grader must be taken from Cu Chi, 50km away from Ho Chi Minh City, to District 1 every day after her junior school is over at 5pm.

While good students are eager to get into schools for the gifted in order to ensure for themselves a place in a good university, fairly good and average counterparts target a seat in public high schools. Parents and kids go by the marks needed to get into each school last year before making their choices, and opt to take extra classes to ensure they make the grade.

The Department of Education and Training has reported around 77,749 junior high students will sit the senior high entrance examination this year. However, public schools can only receive around 56,498 graduates, a little over 72%, which is a decrease of 10% compared to the previous year.

Those who fail at these two options, have other choices: private schools and vocational schools. However, few students and even fewer parents look kindly on these institutions as they must pay more for private facilities and have less opportunity to access higher education. Vocational schools have always been looked down up as academically inferior institutions.

Experts say that this situation will be repeated and reinforced if authorities do not address the issue urgently, and act to ensure the system is more equitable and affords more opportunities to all students.

Source: SGGP

Vietnam strongly supports Global Partnership’s TB fight

In Uncategorized on May 5, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Vietnam strongly supports Global Partnership’s TB fight

QĐND – Wednesday, May 05, 2010, 21:32 (GMT+7)

The Vietnamese Government will continue to strongly support anti-tuberculosis activities undertaken in Vietnam by the Global Stop Tuberculosis Partnership, a Government leader affirmed.

The Global Stop Tuberculosis Partnership’s Coordinating Board convened its 18th meeting in Hanoi on May 4, drawing the attendance of its Chair Prof. Rifat Atun, Vietnamese Health Minister Nguyen Quoc Trieu, a broad spectrum of representatives of local and international organisations concerned.

Addressing the event, Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Thien Nhan also called on the Global Stop Tuberculosis Partnership and the international community to provide more support for the fight against TB in Vietnam , which, as according to the World Health Organisation, ranks 12th among 20 countries heavily burdened by TB in the world.

He hailed the inception of the Global Stop Tuberculosis Partnership and its enthusiastic activities as meeting an urgent need of preventing the dangerous disease, helping the people enjoy a fairness in gaining access to healthcare services, and promoting the share of trans-national responsibilities in controlling the disease worldwide.

Nhan highlighted that the anti-TB activities the Global Stop Tuberculosis Partnership have deployed are highly oriented to the community, regardless of social status and eco-political mechanisms of the participants, in the fight.

These activities have created a driving force to promote the adoption of new initiatives, mechanisms and technologies to combat TB, and also spurred sustainable socio-economic development to achieve millennium development goals.

About 150,000 new TB cases are detected annually in Vietnam . Of the figure, 12,000 cases are found to have infected with both TB and HIV virus and nearly 70 percent are tested positive for AFB, mainly in females and in southern provinces.

An epidemiological study showed that the TB prevalence in Vietnam continues to rise, especially among the youngsters, partly due to inadequate monitoring work.

Besides, the increasing number of multi-drug resistant TB imposes a great challenge to the country’s fight against tuberculosis.

Source: Vietnam+

Source: QDND

Fight Al-Qaeda with satire, ridicule: researchers

In Uncategorized on April 17, 2010 at 11:05 am

Satire and ridicule can help win the fight against Al-Qaeda by stripping it of its glamour and mystique, a team of researchers argue in a report released in London and in comments to AFP.

Beating the Islamist movement is as much about winning the battle of ideas and undermining Al-Qaeda’s counter-culture cachet as it is about conventional anti-terrorism operations, said the report.

“Terrorism must be defeated through the deliberate ‘toxification’ of the al-Qaeda brand; not by making it seem dangerous, but by exposing it as dumb,” Jamie Bartlett, one of the report’s authors, told AFP.

“Al-Qaeda has to be ridiculed as the equivalent of a middle-aged dad at a school disco: enthusiastic, incompetent and excruciatingly uncool.”

A soccer supporter in Argentina is dressed up as Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden holding a plastic chicken in Buenos Aires.

Bartlett, together with Jonathan Birdwell and Michael King, published “The edge of violence, a radical approach of extremism” on the website of the London-based think tank Demos on Friday.

The report summarised two years of work in Britain, Canada, Denmark, France and the Netherlands, which included interviews with 58 people convicted of terror-related offences and with 20 radical, but non-violent Muslims.

Researchers also interviewed 70 Muslims in Canada and 75 local and national experts.

“An increasingly important part of Al-Qaeda?s appeal in the West is its dangerous, romantic and counter-cultural characteristics,” said an executive summary of the report.

Young Muslims are drawn, like young people throughout the ages, to excitement, rebellion and a desire to be cool,” Bartlett, who heads up the extremism and violence department at Demos, told AFP.

“But like every anti-establishment movement before it, Al-Qaeda has become cool, with Mr bin Laden cast as the new Che,” he added.

One could not deny that ideology was important to some of Al-Qaeda terrorists, he said.

“But there is a blind spot that people don’t quite see: there is another side for some people which is the call, the idea of adventure.

“You can understand: it’s quite exciting if you are from a rundown banlieue in Lyon or wherever, to go overseas, travel, see the world, get to shoot a gun. It’s not surprising that some young men would be drawn to that.

“This is true of young men the world over: whether it’s in Islam, in football hooliganism or in gangs.”

So while it was important for the police and intelligence agencies to continue their battle against Al-Qaeda, other tactics also had an important role to play.

Part of the battle was to strip the movement of its glamour and mystique, said the report.

Messages “from a range of organisations, should stress that most Al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists are in fact incompetent, narcissistic, irreligious.”

The idea was to demystify terrorist lives and deaths, said Bartlett.

“The average day in the life of an Islamic extremist is similar to that of a petty criminal: tedious, lonely and punctuated by fear.”

Satire was another powerful tool, the report added, noting that it had been used effectively against both the Ku Klux Klan and the British Fascist party in the 1930s.

Satire, however, was not a job for the authorities, but for others in society, it added.

Fighting Al-Qaeda was not about preventing angry young Muslims from rebelling, but about finding ways to channel a natural sense of subversion and radicalism into non-violent areas, the report argued.

It also recommended a liberal approach to fighting Al-Qaeda’s ideology, exposing it to debate rather than suppressing it, but being sure to provide effective counter-arguments.

“The threat of violent radicalisation can never be ?solved? or completely neutralised; it can only be managed,” the report warned.

“Governments must focus on the things it can realistically change, while the lead role must be played by society — individuals, groups, organisations and communities.”

Source: SGGP

World’s iconic sites go dark to fight global warming

In Uncategorized on March 29, 2010 at 9:52 am

From Sydney Harbor to the world’s tallest tower in Dubai and the ancient pyramids, major landmarks went dark for an hour to join the battle against climate change.

But politics and commercial priorities meant that some well-known energy-guzzling monuments did not join the record 4,000 cities and 125 countries in Saturday night’s fourth annual Earth Hour organised by the WWF.

Drivers had to cross San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge with just their headlights to help them see, while Twitter and Facebook set up applications to let screens darken for an hour along with tourist monuments that briefly went missing from the skyline.

General view of the New York City skyline as the Empire State Building and Chrysler Building turn off their tower lights

The annual dimming of lights, this year on Saturday at 8:30 pm in locations around the world, was hailed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as “both a warning and a beacon of hope”.

“From Brazil to America, to Canada, all the way down to Australia, Japan and India — it’s a really diverse set of countries taking part this year,” Earth Hour executive director Andy Ridley said.

New Zealand’s Chatham Islands officially started the energy-saving demonstration, switching off its diesel generators to leave just 12 street lamps burning.

Sydney’s iconic harbor and Opera house went dark to the sound of blaring ferry horns.

In Asia, the Forbidden City in China’s capital, the world’s biggest carbon polluter, joined in.

In Dubai, the world’s tallest building, the recently opened Burj Khalifa, had its lights switched off.

Egypt participated as well, with lights turned off at the Giza plateau, plunging the three Great Pyramids, the Sphinx and the surrounding desert into total darkness.

North America‘s tallest building, the 110-floor Willis Tower, led a mass switch off in Chicago where more than than 200 buildings joined the campaign to save energy.

“By participating in the symbolic event of Earth Hour, we show that, together, we can collectively make a difference to protect and preserve the environment,” said Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

Earth Hour started in 2007 in Sydney and enjoys widespread support from the public and big business, including Google, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.

But some cities and icons could not or would not join in.

In Bangkok, city authorities were ordered to halt their Earth Hour campaign for security reasons as anti-government protesters held a major rally.

In Europe, London’s Big Ben turned off its lights and the bank of advertising neons in Piccadilly Circus went dark. It is thought to be only the fourth time since World War II that the huge Coca-Cola sign there has been dimmed. But some onlookers said the city should have gone further.

“I thought it was going to be the whole of Piccadilly and it’s just the screens. It should have been all the lights and all the buildings around here,” said Sandra Herrera, 23, visiting from Bilbao in Spain.

More than 240 buildings and monuments in Paris participated in Earth Hour, but the Eiffel Tower only went dark for five minutes.

In New York, the landmark Empire State and Chrysler building turned off their lights as did United Nations headquarters on East River.

But Times Square’s hoardings remained a beacon of commercial excess. “It was disappointing,” commented Melodie Carli, a 20-year-old French national in Times Square. “We came here especially to see the event.”

“As we watch the lights go out from continent to continent, let us reflect on the fragility and importance of our natural heritage and pledge to protect it for a sustainable future for all,” said the UN chief.

Source: SGGP

World’s iconic sites go dark to fight global warming

In Uncategorized on March 28, 2010 at 7:42 am

PARIS (AFP) – The world’s tallest building went dark, the Eiffel Tower lost its glow and lights were shut off at other sites across the globe Saturday in a campaign to boost the fight against climate change.

A combo shows the Eiffel tower submerging into darkness at 8:30 pm (local time) in Paris as part of the Earth Hour switch-off. AFP photo

Ferry horns blared across Sydney harbour in a noisy start to the Earth Hour energy-saving event, involving 4,000 cities in a record 125 countries.

It was to include 1,200 landmarks from the Forbidden City to Egypt’s pyramids and the Las Vegas Strip, with iconic sites going dark for 60 minutes.

“From Brazil to America, to Canada, all the way down to Australia, Japan and India — it’s a really diverse set of countries taking part this year,” Earth Hour executive director Andy Ridley said.

The rolling wave of darkness was intended to boost the environmental movement after disappointing UN talks in Copenhagen in December.

The WWF-run event officially began when New Zealand’s Chatham Islands switched off their diesel generators to leave just 12 street lamps burning and was to end nearly 24 hours later in Samoa.

Beijing’s Forbidden City and Bird’s Nest Stadium were among the participants along with other cities in China, which is the world’s biggest carbon polluter and appointed giant panda Mei Lan its Earth Hour “ambassador”.

But in Bangkok, city authorities were ordered to halt their Earth Hour campaign for security reasons as anti-government protesters held a major rally.

Elsewhere in Asia, the Japanese city of Hiroshima turned off the lights at 30 sites, including its Peace Memorial, set in one of the few buildings to survive an atom bomb attack during World War II.

Private homes also switched off their power. New Delhi Mum Aruna Mehra told AFP: “My daughter invited her friends over for a party to eat by candlelight” — although others drew the line at switching off fans in the sweltering heat.

In Delhi and Mumbai, lights were switched off at shops, hotels, the Rashtrapati Bhavan presidential residence, the 17th-century Red Fort and the Swaminarayan Akshardham temple complex, one of India’s largest Hindu places of worship.

India is expected to be among the countries hit hardest by rising temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns, with experts warning such problems could affect food security and displace communities.

In the Middle East, the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, had its lights switched off for Earth Hour.

Egypt participated as well, with lights shut off at the Giza plateau, plunging the three Great Pyramids, the Sphinx and the surrounding desert area into total darkness.

In Europe, some of the world’s most recognisable sites faded into darkness.

More than 240 buildings and monuments in Paris participated, including the Eiffel Tower — which only went dark for five minutes as opposed to the full hour. Some 1,600 candles were lit at its base in recognition of the event.

London’s Big Ben took part, and the advertising signs at Piccadilly Circus in the city were also turned off. It is thought to be only the fourth time since World War II that the huge Coca-Cola sign there has been dimmed.

But some onlookers in Piccadilly Circus said the measures should have gone further.

“I thought it was going to be the whole of Piccadilly and it’s just the screens. It should have been all the lights and all the buildings around here,” said Sandra Herrera, 23, visiting from Bilbao in Spain.

Rome’s Trevi Fountain, known by many through Federico Fellini’s film “La Dolce Vita”, was among Italy’s sites involved in the campaign.

In the United States, some 30 states were on board, with Mount Rushmore, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and Chicago’s 110-storey Sears Tower all due to go dark.

Earth Hour started in 2007 in Sydney and enjoys widespread support both from the public and big business, including Google, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.

This year, even users of ubiquitous Twitter and Facebook could show their support with special applications that turn their displays dark.

In December, two weeks of UN talks in Copenhagen failed to produce a binding commitment to limit global warming or set out concrete plans for doing so, in a setback for the environmental movement.

Source: SGGP

After century-long fight, US enacts health reforms

In Uncategorized on March 24, 2010 at 3:43 pm

WASHINGTON, March 24, 2010 (AFP) – President Barack Obama signed into law historic, sweeping reforms Tuesday that lay out health care coverage for almost every American and realize the dreams of generations of past US leaders.

“Today, after almost a century of trying, today after over a year of debate, today, after all the votes have been tallied, health insurance reform becomes law in the United States of America,” Obama said.

US President Barack Obama signs the health insurance reform bill in the East Room of the White House in Washington. AFP photo

“The bill I’m signing will set in motion reforms that generations of Americans have fought for and marched for and hungered to see,” he told a jubilant, packed audience at a White House signing ceremony.

Delighted lawmakers and guests cheered as Obama made good on his campaign vow to overhaul America’s embattled health care system, enacting a huge shift in US policy and the biggest social legislation in over four decades.

Meanwhile, the Senate began debate on a package of fixes sent by the House, with dozens of amendments to be proposed. Among the changes are canceling special agreements benefiting states like Nebraska and plans to fill the “donut hole” of Medicare health coverage for the elderly.

The House of Representatives narrowly approved the legislation that is now US law by 219-212 late Sunday, using the Democratic majority to muscle the measure through a united Republican opposition.

The 940-billion-dollar overhaul will extend coverage to some 32 million Americans who currently have none, ensuring 95 percent of under-65 US citizens and legal residents will have health insurance.

The historic signing came a century after president Theodore Roosevelt first called for a national approach to US health care, and after past leaders such as Bill Clinton tried and failed to reform the creaky, costly system.

For the first time ever, almost all Americans will be required to buy insurance or face fines. Among other key reforms, the new law bans insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, from dropping clients who get sick or from setting lifetime caps.

“You’ve made history,” Vice President Joe Biden told a beaming Obama. “Mr President, you’ve done what generations of not just ordinary, but great men and women have attempted to do.

“You have turned, Mr President, the right of every American to have access to decent health care into reality for the first time in American history.”

In the ceremonial East Room, where president Lyndon Johnson signed the civil rights bill into law in 1964, a party atmosphere prevailed as euphoric Democrats gathered to witness the act, sharing hugs and slapping palms.

Among them were Vicki and Caroline Kennedy, the widow and niece of the late senator Ted Kennedy, who struggled for almost five decades to enact health care reform, the cause of his life.

Obama used some 20 different pens to sign the 2,000-plus page bill, intending to give most of them to guests and key lawmakers and administration officials as souvenirs of the momentous occasion.

The Senate is taking up changes needed to their initial legislation. It is expected to approve them separately under rules that prevent Republicans from using a filibuster to indefinitely delay and kill the measure.

But Obama still has a hard sell defending the reforms ahead of the key congressional mid-term November elections, with Republicans throwing up their arms at a legislation they say is too costly.

“We’ve heard a lot today about how historic this bill is, and it’s true,” said Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele in a statement. “It is an historic betrayal of the clear will of the American people. It is an historic loss of liberty.”

House Republican Minority Leader John Boehner lamented “a somber day for the American people.”

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told CNN that “repeal and replace will be the slogan” for Republicans going forward.

Yet a USA Today/Gallup poll taken just after the bill’s signing found that nearly half of Americans support the landmark health care overhaul, with 49 percent of respondents saying the bill was a “good thing,” while 40 percent considered it a “bad thing.”

On Thursday, Obama takes to the road, visiting Iowa for the first in a series of campaign-style events on the bill’s behalf.

Overturning the plan is a mathematical impossibility in this election cycle as Republicans cannot win the two-thirds majority in the House and Senate needed to override Obama’s veto.

But 14 states filed lawsuits against the legislation just moments after Obama signed the bill. Idaho and Virginia have already passed laws preventing their residents from being forced to buy insurance.

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