EPA Ponders Expanded Regulatory Power

The focus of an upcoming global United Nations conference will be the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) goal to change how it makes decisions and analyzes problems to give it more power to regulate businesses, communities and ecosystems in the name of “sustainable development,” according to Fox News.

The news outlet reported that the major reason behind the EPA thinking is a study that the agency commissioned last year from the National Academies of Science. The study, entitled “Sustainability and the U.S. EPA,” cost nearly $700,000 and was run by a team of outside experts and staff from the academies.

Fox News reported that the aim of the study was to determine how to integrate sustainability “as one of the key drivers within the regulatory responsibilities of EPA.” The panel also wrote that part of its job is to be “providing guidance to EPA on how it might implement its existing statutory authority to contribute more fully to a more sustainable-development trajectory for the United States.”

The Associated Press reported that rules from the EPA have recently threatened to shut down more than 32 coal-fired power plants in a dozen States.

U.S. And North Korea Hold Talks Over Food Aid

U.S. officials say food aid to North Korea may resume depending on whether Pyongyang can provide the necessary monitoring assurances in talks between the two countries that began in Beijing, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the United Nations and charities from the U.S. have said that aid is needed in this Asian country, but the Americans are concerned that North Korea, which has consolidated resources into a nuclear weapons program, could divert the food aid to political elites and the military.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Wednesday that the aid could include both vitamin supplements and high-protein biscuits for malnourished individuals in addition to more generic food, according to the AP.

These items would be less likely to end up "on some leader's banquet table," said Nuland in a conference. "They (North Korean officials) know that we were obviously deeply dissatisfied with the way this went before and that we need more discussions about it."

TIME magazine reported that the North Korean government recently threatened their neighbors to the south after South Koreans fixed large towers on the border with Christmas lights.

Gold Prices Gain On European Uncertainty

The price of gold rose for a second straight day in New York, rebounding from a drop last week, as concerns about Europe's debt crisis push demand upwards, Bloomberg reported.

According to the news outlet, gold had dropped last week due to the sharp rise of the American dollar versus the euro, but the metal was able to recover the losses after Fitch Ratings lowered its outlook for several European nations.

"Gold suffered from a renewed rush for dollar liquidity, but in the long run its outlook remains solid," Andrey Kryuchenkov, an analyst at VTB Capital in London, told Bloomberg. "Accommodative monetary policy across the globe will continue to secure gold’s inflation hedge role."

The news outlet reported that Goldman Sachs analysts predicted prices for the metal will average $1,810 an ounce next year as central banks will buy between 400 and 600 metric tons of gold.

The price of gold for February delivery rose by $9.50 to $1,607.50 an ounce on the New York Mercantile Exchange, marking an increase of 0.60 percent for the commodity, according to CNN.

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il Dies At 69

Kim Jong Il, supreme leader of North Korea, died on Saturday, December 17, after an apparent heart attack during a train ride, state television reported, according to Forbes.

The news outlet reported that the North Korean leader is said to have had a history of serious ailments, including diabetes, stroke and pancreatic cancer. He may have been on dialysis at the time of his passing.

Fox News reported that President Barack Obama is consulting with allies following the death of Il, as the heart attack has catapulted his son Kim Jong Un to power. This transition could further destabilize the world’s most isolated country.

“This brings extraordinary change and uncertainty to a country that has seen little change in decades. South Korea’s concern is warranted, frankly, because an insecure North Korea could well be an even more dangerous North Korea,” a U.S. official told the news outlet.

The military and police forces of South Korea were placed on high alert following the death of Kim, and president Lee Myung-bak spoke with Obama to reaffirm “the United States’ strong commitment to the stability of the Korean Peninsula and the security of our close ally,” according to the White House.

Congress Overturns Ban On Incandescent Light Bulbs

Congressional negotiators struck a deal that overturns the new rules that would have banned sales of traditional incandescent light bulbs beginning in 2012, The Washington Times reported.

According to the newspaper, Congressional Republicans won inclusion of the light bulb provision into the massive 1,200 page spending bill. This move prevents the Administration of President Barack Obama from carrying through a 2007 law that would have set energy efficiency standards which would have rendered the traditional light source obsolete.

Although the bill doesn’t amend the 2007 law, it prohibits the Administration from spending any money to carry out the light bulb standards, the Times reported.

The Hill reported that the light bulb standards put forth by the Energy Department have come under fire from conservatives in recent months. The energy legislation contained provisions that would require traditional incandescent bulbs to be 30 percent more efficient starting in 2012.

Republicans had described the standards as a “light bulb ban,” arguing that the rules would restrict consumer choice by pushing out traditional incandescent bulbs in favor of more expensive, but more efficient, LED (light emitting diode) and CFL (compact fluorescent light) bulbs, according to the news outlet.

Congress Reaches Deal To Avoid Government Shutdown

Congressional leaders signed off on a deal Thursday night to bypass the legislative logjam that had been threatening another government shutdown, The Washington Times reported.

According to the newspaper, the deal would have both the House and Senate pass a $1 trillion bill to fund the government, with both parties backing off on provisions that the other side had deemed unacceptable.

"The House and Senate have reached a final agreement to move forward on the final fiscal year 2012 appropriations legislation. I am hopeful that the House and Senate can pass this bill tomorrow to prevent a government shutdown. It is good to see that responsible leadership and good governance can triumph," Representative Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) said in a statement.

The Washington Post reported that now the spending deal has been reached, the payroll tax issue remains the last fight to occur during the first session of the 112th Congress. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) noted that the public needed to give the government time to strike a deal.

"I think there’s an easy way to untangle all of this," Boehner said in a statement. "We just need to let the members do their jobs, and we need to let the two institutions do their work."

Arab Diplomat Notes al-Qaida Rebranding Itself

The al-Qaida organization in the Arabian Peninsula is rebranding itself to try to lose the negative image associated with the larger terror organization’s identity, a senior Arab diplomat told Fox News.

According to the news outlet, the diplomat noted that the Yemeni-based group is trying to attract more foreign fighters to its cause. AQAP is increasingly going by the name “Ansar al-Sharia,” which means Army of Islamic Law.

“After (Osama) bin Laden’s death and the Arab Spring, the name (al-Qaida) seems to have negative connotations and baggage,” the diplomat, who asked to remain nameless, told Fox News.

The news outlet reported that the rebranding efforts will be part of a larger push to attract foreign jihadists and give it a greater air of legitimacy as a political movement.

A senior Yemini official told Fox News that the number of foreign fighters in his country now exceeds 1,000.

Despite the proposed name change, the group is still operating under similar circumstances.

House Republicans Unveil $1 Trillion Spending Bill

GOP Representatives have unveiled a massive $1 trillion-plus spending package despite a plea from the White House for additional talks over a number of provisions opposed by President Barack Obama, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the measure curbs agency budget cuts but drops many of the political provisions that were originally sought by GOP conservatives. It also contains language to roll back policies from the Obama Administration.

The AP reported that Democratic leverage to stall the massive spending measure seems limited, since this opposition would raise the threat of a government shutdown.

Release of the legislation – to meet GOP transparency rules if a vote is to be held Friday – came despite the White House issuing a statement hours before saying that Obama "continues to have significant concerns about a number of provisions" in the proposal, according to the news outlet.

Although the Republicans put forth the bill, Obama and the Democrats want Congress to deal with the payroll tax cut issue prior to reviewing the new legislation, USA Today reported.

U.S. To Leave Iraqi Airspace Clear For Israelis

The U.S. military's December 31 deadline for exiting Iraq is fast-approaching and may leave the airspace over the country vacant, helping put Israel in a better place strategically to strike Iran's nuclear facilities, The Washington Times reported.

According to the newspaper, Iraq has yet to assemble a force of jet fighters, and since the shortest route for planes from Israel to Iran is through Iraqi airspace, the U.S. exit helps with the Jewish state's mission planning.

The Times reported that Army Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, noted that the Iraqi military has yet to take possession of American F-16s to guard their airspace.

"The country has a capable and improving capability to see the airspace, a viable system to provide command and control, but no system to defeat incoming air threats until it gets either the F-16s or ground-based systems or, optimally, some of both," Buchanan told the newspaper.

The Jerusalem Post reported that the President Barack Obama Administration is concerned that Iran is on the verge of being able to enrich uranium at a deep underground facility.

Postal Service Halts Plans To Close Mail-Sorting Facilities

Only a few days after top officials from the U.S. Postal Service said they were moving forward with closing mail-sorting facilities nationwide, the agency halted the plans due to pressure from members of Congress.

According to The Washington, the agency released a brief statement that explained how the Postal Service would delay the closures until May due to a request by multiple Senators.

“The Postal Service hopes this period will help facilitate the enactment of comprehensive postal legislation,” the statement said.

The Associated Press reported that the proposed closures would have included 252 mail processing centers and 3,700 local post offices. The cash-strapped agency, which is expected to lose $14.1 billion next year, had planned on closing certain sites as early as April.

According to the news outlet, a group of 18 Democratic Senators signed a letter to Congressional leaders that asked them to add language that would help delay the closings, which may cost 100,000 postal employees their jobs.

Obama To Cut National Guard Force Stationed At U.S.-Mexico Border

The Administration of President Barack Obama will cut the number of National Guard troops who are patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border by at least half, according to The Washington Times.

According to the newspaper, the main reason for the pullout, reported a Congressman who was briefed on the plan, was the cuts to the Federal budget that are set to take place.

The Times reported that the National Guard said an announcement would be made by the White House “in the near future,” but Representative Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) said slashing the deployment in half would bring the total troop numbers to a minimum amount.

“What’s apparent now is that a decision not to continue their deployment, even though it might be in the national interest to do so, would be based entirely on budget constraints on the Defense Department,” Hunter said in a statement.

The Associated Press reported that this development came at a time when a proposal is being considered that would install kiosks in Big Bend National Park in Texas. This would allow people from the tiny Mexican town of Boquillas del Carmen to scan their identity documents and speak with a customs official more than 100 miles away.

New York Federal Court In Preparation For Pregnancy Pill Showdown

A Federal judge in Brooklyn is poised to hear arguments concerning the decisions made by the government over the access teenage girls are given to morning-after contraceptive pills, according to The Associated Press.

According to the news outlet, the arguments come just a week after Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and announced that the pills would only be given without prescription to individuals 17 and older.

“Yet, it is commonly understood that there are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between older adolescent girls and the youngest girls of reproductive age, which I believe are relevant to making this determination as to non-prescription availability of this product for all ages,” Sebelius said of studies submitted to the government that did not include data on all ages.

Judge Edward Korman, who will hear the arguments concerning the Constitutionality of blocking over-the-counter-sales of the emergency contraception to girls younger than 17, had previously ordered the FDA to let 17-year-olds obtain the pill, according to NY News 1.

Senate, House Negotiators Agree On Defense Bill

Senate and House negotiators struck a deal that gives the military first crack at holding suspected al-Qaida terrorists who are caught in the U.S., setting up a showdown with President Barack Obama who had said he may veto the bill, The Washington Times reported.

According to the newspaper, the negotiators – the top Democrat and Republican on the House and Senate Armed Services committees – noted that they weren’t intending to change exisiting law enforcement, but felt strongly that terrorists caught plotting against the U.S. should be held by the military.

This would also apply to individuals who are caught on U.S. soil, according to The Associated Press. The leaders of the committees reached an agreement on this matter, and they pushed the bill to the White House, hoping that Obama would rescind his threat of a veto.

Obama had said that he would veto the bill if he thought it constrained his authority.

The AP reported that the bill would authorize $662 billion for military personnel, weapons systems, national security programs in the Energy Department and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama, al-Maliki To Plan Next Moves For U.S., Iraq

As the end of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq approaches, President Barack Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will meet in Washington to discuss the next phase of the relationship between the two nations, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the withdrawal of the last American troops on Dec. 31 marks the end of a nearly nine-year conflict that has been deeply divisive in Iraq and the U.S. Though the two leaders have pledged to maintain ties, the future of the relationship remains unclear.

The AP reported that the end of the war marks a promise that was kept by Obama, as he has eagerly promoted this removal of U.S. troops.

Taking the soldiers out of Iraq has been seen as a troublesome move by some military experts, however, due to the threat that Iran poses in the region and the strained relations between Obama and al-Maliki.

“Maliki has always been a very troublesome ally,” Toby Dodge, an expert on Iraq from the London School of Economics, told The Washington Post. “America has never managed to get him to do what they want him to do, and they never managed to run him.”

Bolton: Iran May Have Acquired Jamming Technology

Although American officials have continued to insist that neither weaponry nor technology brought down a U.S. drone over Iran, a former U.S. ambassador said if reports are true that Russia provided jamming equipment to the country, the situation becomes much worse, according to Fox News.

“Some reports have said Russia sold (Iran) a very sophisticated jamming system a short time ago,” former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton told the news source. “Now, our military says that is not true, it came down because of a malfunction. I certainly hope that’s right because if the Russians have provided Iran with sophisticated jamming equipment it means a lot else is at risk too.”

Bolton noted that Congress should be concerned if Iran is in possession of jamming technology that can bring down planes, missiles and communications and guidance systems “for a whole range of our weapon systems.”

According to World Net Daily, reports have indicated that Chinese and Russian military officials have requested to send experts to Iran to inspect the U.S. drone that crashed down in the country last week.

Supreme Court May Take Look At State Immigration Laws

The President Barack Obama Administration is in the middle of a legal battle against a patchwork of State laws that target illegal immigrants, and now the Supreme Court will enter the ring, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, Arizona is asking the high court to let the State begin enforcing measures that have been blocked by lower courts at the request of the administration. Among the provisions is one that requires police, while enforcing other laws, to question the immigration status of an individual if he is suspected of being in the country illegally.

The AP reported that officials from the Justice Department said that regulating immigration is the job of the Federal government, not the States.

Although the Federal government sued Utah last month due to immigration legislation, several other States have voiced their displeasure with the way that Washington is handling the immigration issue, The Charleston Post and Courier reported.

“If the Feds were doing their job, we wouldn’t have had to address illegal immigration reform at the state level,” a spokesman for South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley told the newspaper.

Family Doctors Don’t Help Patients Dodge Diabetes

Though family doctors should help patients take steps to prevent diabetes, they’re failing to help them avoid this crippling disease. The risk factors are well-known, but a study at Queen Mary, University of London, shows that family doctors aren’t paying sufficient attention to their patients who are at risk. The doctors aren’t offering the preventive medical advice these patients need.

Authors of the study examined 145 factors that are associated with type 2 diabetes. They discovered that there were seven risk scores — such as being overweight or having a family history of the disorder — that physicians could use to predict whether a patient may develop the condition.

The researchers noted that about half of these factors were modifiable through diet, exercise or medication. Additionally, they said that diabetes prevention efforts are the best way to halt the rate of the blood sugar disorder, considering that there is currently no cure.

“If we stop people from developing diabetes in the first place we will prevent a great deal of ill health, save money, reduce use of [healthcare] resources and, crucially, save lives,” said lead researcher Douglas Noble.

Risk factors that appeared to predict the onset of diabetes most accurately included old age, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and family history. Effective weight loss plans have been shown to be a way of preventing type 2 diabetes.

Senate Rejects Payroll Tax Cut Plan

Senate Rejects Payroll Tax Cut PlanThe Senate rejected Democratic and Republican plans for extending the Social Security payroll tax cuts as the two parties continued to fight over a cornerstone of President Barack Obama's plan for revitalizing the economy, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, due to the fact that the Senate failed to renew the payroll tax reduction, the issue moves to the House of Representatives.

"I do not expect Congress to go home unless the payroll tax cut is extended and unless unemployment insurance is extended," Obama said in a statement. "It would be wrong for families, but it would also be wrong for the economy as a whole."

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) noted that he felt confident in the ability of lawmakers to move ahead after GOP leaders previewed legislation that would extend the cuts and unemployment benefits, according to the AP.

The Washington Times reported the bill that failed to pass in the Senate would have cut the payroll tax in half for 2012 and replaced that money in Social Security trust funds by imposing a surtax on individuals who have million-dollar incomes. 

House Votes To Give Lawmakers More Power Over Regulations

The House of Representatives voted to give Congress greater power to reject or approve Federal rules that the GOP has deemed “job-killers,” The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the 241-184 vote sends the bill to the Senate, where the Democratic majority is unlikely to place it on the schedule. This legislation would represent a major shift in power from agency officials in the executive branch that were not elected to members of Congress.

The AP reported that Democrats have argued that this bill would give Republicans the authority to jeopardize rules that cover healthcare, the environment, defective products, workplace-and-food safety and other “protections.”

The bill would apply to regulations that have an estimated economic impact of more than $100 million, according to the news outlet.

“Small-business owners have identified regulations as their No. 1 problem in this rough economy, but the administration refuses to allow any checks on its regulatory power,” a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told USA Today.

The news outlet reported that President Barack Obama and the White House have threatened to veto this bill if the proposed legislation reaches the executive branch.

Senate Rejects Payroll Tax Cut Plan

The Senate rejected Democratic and Republican plans for extending the Social Security payroll tax cuts as the two parties continued to fight over a cornerstone of President Barack Obama’s plan for revitalizing the economy, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, due to the fact that the Senate failed to renew the payroll tax reduction, the issue moves to the House of Representatives.

“I do not expect Congress to go home unless the payroll tax cut is extended and unless unemployment insurance is extended,” Obama said in a statement. “It would be wrong for families, but it would also be wrong for the economy as a whole.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) noted that he felt confident in the ability of lawmakers to move ahead after GOP leaders previewed legislation that would extend the cuts and unemployment benefits, according to the AP.

The Washington Times reported the bill that failed to pass in the Senate would have cut the payroll tax in half for 2012 and replaced that money in Social Security trust funds by imposing a surtax on individuals who have million-dollar incomes.

Air Force Dumped More Soldiers’ Remains In Landfill Than Acknowledged

The Air Force dumped the incinerated partial remains of at least 274 American troops in a Virginia landfill, a number much higher than the military had originally acknowledged, records show, The Washington Post reported.

According to the newspaper, the landfill dumping was concealed from families who had given the military permission to dispose of the remains in a “dignified and respectful manner,” officials from the Air Force said. They went on to note that there are no plans to alert those families now.

The Post reported that Air Force and Pentagon officials said last month that determining the true number would require significant effort, due to the more than 6,300 troops whose remains have passed through the mortuary since 2001.

“It would require a massive effort and time to recall records and research individually,” the Pentagon’s acting undersecretary for personnel, wrote in a letter to Representative Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.).

MSNBC reported that changes in the disposal policies only came about after an in-depth review at the site was ordered in 2008 by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

U.S. Military A Growing Target For Terrorists, Lawmakers Note

There is an increasing amount of evidence that homegrown terrorists view military bases and personnel as high-value targets, lawmakers said prior to a joint session of the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees, Fox News reported.

“People in uniform are symbols of the United States. They’re symbols of America{‘s} power, symbols of America{‘s} might,” Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.), told the news outlet. “And if they (military personnel) can be killed, then that is a great propaganda victory for al-Qaida.”

According to Fox News, King noted that there is evidence that extremists have joined the armed forces. He spoke to the alleged threat from individuals who have enlisted in the military that may be “radical jihadists.”

Senator Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, agreed with King, as he noted that soldiers and perhaps their families would be vulnerable to these extremists.

Lieberman cited the attack, allegedly by U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, that killed 13 soldiers and civilians at Fort Hood, Texas, as one of the examples of what could happen, CNN reported.

Drone Recovered In Iran Was Joint Military-CIA Plane

The U.S. drone that fell into Iran’s hands was part of a joint military-CIA reconnaissance operation, Fox News reported.

According to the news outlet, a senior U.S. official confirmed that the spy plane was being used as part of a joint operation along the Afghanistan-Iran border when it suddenly lost connectivity and disappeared.

There have been reports from the Iranian government that the plane was flying over their airspace when it went down, but the International Security Assistance Force claimed that the drone was above Afghanistan when its operators lost control, ABC News reported.

Fox News reported that despite the differences between what the two sides are saying, the drone, dubbed “The Beast of Kandahar”, was a significant find for the Iranian government.

“This is a big prize in terms of technology,” a senior U.S. military source told the news outlet.

According to Fox News, the spy plane uses the same technology as the drone that was used to monitor Osama Bin Laden’s compound, and is presumed to be intact due to its programmed move to find a landing place once control is lost.