Afghan And U.S. Governments Begin Peace Talks With Taliban

The U.S. and Afghan governments have begun secret three-way talks with the Taliban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told The Wall Street Journal in an interview, as he disclosed an important breakthrough in the effort to end the ongoing war.

According to the newspaper, Karzai, whose government had objected to being left out of recent talks between the U.S. and the insurgent group, added that he believes the Taliban are in favor of a peace settlement.

“People in Afghanistan want peace, including the Taliban. They’re also people like we all are. They have families, they have relatives, they have children, they are suffering a tough time,” Karzai told the Journal. He declined to go into details about the specific location of the talks between his government, the U.S. and the Taliban, as he noted it may damage the process.

The Associated Press reported that the presidents of Afghanistan and Iran convened in Pakistan on Thursday for a three-way summit that was focused on specific steps that could be taken to facilitate peace talks with the Afghan Taliban.

Rhode Island School Committee Votes Not To Appeal Prayer Banner Case

A Rhode Island public school district committee recently voted not to appeal a Federal court decision that ordered the removal of a prayer banner that had been displayed in a high school, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the issue was brought up when a 16-year-old atheist filed a lawsuit against the school district, and the Cranston School Committee voted to not appeal the case after a lengthy public hearing.

The AP reported that the banner, which had been up since 1963, was covered since a Federal judge ruled that it was unConstitutional and ordered its removal. In the hearing, appeal opponents cited the legal costs – that were predicted to be more than $500,000 if it were to reach the Supreme Court – as grounds for giving up the fight.

“You will be wasting time and incredible resources. Half a million dollars? How dare you,” a resident said during the hearing.

Reuters reported that the reaction from the crowd was mixed, but the school must remove the banner within 10 days under the court order.

“The ACLU is going to win solely because of the fiscal condition of Cranston,” school board chairwoman Andrea Iannazzi told a crowd after the appeal was dropped.

Obama Raises $29 Million For Campaign In January

President Barack Obama raised $29 million for the Democratic party and his campaign in January, as the strong month put him ahead of the pace that he set in the last quarter of 2011, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the campaign for the President announced that Obama raised the money through the Victory Fund for his re-election effort, for the Democratic National Committee and other related committees.

The money that was raised in January brings Obama’s total combined fundraising for this election cycle to roughly $250 million, an average of nearly $23 million a month.

The AP reported that fundraising concluded before the campaign’s announcement this month that, in a reversal of policy, the President would embrace the big-money groups in fundraising that he had once criticized.

CBS News reported that a Tweet sent by the President’s Twitter account noted that of the donations from January, 98 percent of them were for $250 or less. Obama raised $68 million in the fourth quarter of 2011, significantly more than any Republican during that period.

Spending Cuts Outweigh Farm Subsidies For Rural Constituents

The promotion of farm subsidies was once a common move for rural members of Congress who were seeking re-election, but this year the call for spending cuts may affect the push for the agricultural industry by these lawmakers, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, lawmakers are approaching the writing of the next five-year farm bill with caution, and agribusiness and farmers’ lobbyists are preparing for the worst. With little support for spending in Washington, subsidy cuts in the billions of dollars are on the table.

The recent success in the agricultural industry hasn’t helped, as the farm bill may lose support due to the fact that many people feel farmers are doing fine.

“What’s different this time is we have very strong commodity prices,” Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, told the AP. “And that is generally not a really good time to write a farm bill because everyone who is projecting the future says, ‘Oh, this is going to last forever.'”

Bloomberg reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture spending would rise 2.5 percent in the next year, before crop subsidies would kick in and provide aid to farmers.

Light Sleepers More Likely To Get Alzheimer’s

The amount and quality of sleep you get at night may affect your memory later in life, according to research to be presented at the American Academy of Neurology’s 64th Annual Meeting in New Orleans in April.

“Disrupted sleep appears to be associated with the build-up of amyloid plaques, a hallmark marker of Alzheimer’s disease, in the brains of people without memory problems,” says study author Yo-El Ju, MD, with Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a member of the American Academy of Neurology. “Further research is needed to determine why this is happening and whether sleep changes may predict cognitive decline.”

Researchers tested the sleep patterns of 100 people between the ages of 45 and 80 who were free of dementia. Half of the group had a family history of Alzheimer’s disease. A device was placed on the participants for two weeks to measure sleep. Sleep diaries and questionnaires were also analyzed by researchers.

After the study, it was discovered that 25 percent of the participants had evidence of amyloid plaques, which can appear years before the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease begin. The average time a person spent in bed during the study was about eight hours, but the average sleep time was 6.5 hours due to short awakenings in the night.

The study found that people who woke up more than five times per hour were more likely to have amyloid plaque build-up compared to people who didn’t wake up as much.

Social Security Reserves Forecast To Be Empty By 2022

Social Security's bank account will be empty in 2022, the first time the program's combined trust funds will run a deficit, according to the budget that was recently released by President Barack Obama.

The Washington Times reported that not only will Social Security be empty by that date, but one of Medicare's trust funds will also be in the red for much of the next decade.

According to the numbers in the briefing book that the White House provided along with the budget, Social Security's trust fund will run a deficit of $2.6 billion in 2022.

The Times reported that Social Security has taken in less in taxes than it has paid out in benefits since 2010, but the shortfall has been covered by the government dipping into the leftover money in the trust funds from previous years.

The Washington Post reported that the proposed budget from the President included only modest trims to Federal healthcare programs and no changes to Social Security, which remain the biggest drivers of future borrowing. 

U.S. Considering Cuts To Nuclear Arms

The Administration of President Barack Obama is weighing options for significant new cuts to the U.S. nuclear force, including a potential 80 percent reduction in the number of deployed weapons, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the most modest option under consideration by the President would be a historic step toward disarmament, and a move closer to Obama’s 2009 pledge to pursue the elimination of nuclear weapons.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the lower end of the cuts would limit the total number of warheads to 300, according to a U.S. official.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said the details of the proposals remain classified, but confirmed that the Department of Defense had been asked to create proposals for nuclear deterrence.

“The president asked DoD to develop several alternative approaches to deterrence and stability, to include illustrative force size and postures to best support those alternatives,” Little said in a statement.

The Journal reported that the Senate in 2010 ratified the New Start pact with Russia, a treaty that set the current limit of 1,550 warheads, as the bipartisan support for its passage came after the Obama Administration pledged to modernize America’s nuclear weapons.

Sebelius Defends Contraception Rule In First Appearance Since Mandate

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius made her first appearance since her department announced the new rule that mandates the provision of female contraception, as she defended the move as legally sound before lawmakers in Washington, Fox News reported.

“We certainly had our legal department look at a whole host of legal issues,” Sebelius testified before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has said the President Barack Obama Administration’s “accommodation” to the initial rule, which was announced on February 10, as it will still require Catholic-affiliated charities, hospitals and schools to offer contraception to female employees as part of their healthcare plans.

According to the news outlet, Sebelius faced questions from Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who asked about the legal justification for the move and future plans regarding contraception.

“We can work out a strategy where (Catholics) can abide by their religious freedom and the women employed in those institutions will have contraception,” she said, alluding to the year-long extension that was granted to employers regarding the adoption of the rule.

POLITICO reported that Sebelius did not talk to Catholic bishops when drafting the latest version of the rule.

Unemployment Claims Drop To Below 350,000

The number of people who are seeking unemployment benefits fell to the lowest point in roughly four years last week, the latest sign that the job market in the U.S. is steadily improving, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the Labor Department announced that weekly applications for unemployment benefits dropped by 13,000 to a seasonally adjusted 348,000. This marked the fourth drop in five weeks and represented the smallest number of claims since March 2008.

The AP reported that the average has fallen nearly 13 percent in the last year, and the consistent decline may indicate that companies are laying off fewer workers and hiring is beginning to pick up at an accelerated pace.

According to the news outlet, when the number of applications for unemployment consistently drop below 375,000, it usually signifies that hiring is strong enough to influence the unemployment rate in a positive way.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the economy is expected to improve this year, but only modestly, as potential headwinds like the European debt crisis may hinder its progress.

Department Of Energy Nears Approval Of $8.3 Billion Loan For Nuclear Reactors

Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that he expects to finalize an $8.3 billion taxpayer-backed loan for two new nuclear reactors in Georgia, setting up another battle in Washington over the government's investments in energy-related projects, The Hill reported.

According to the news outlet, the Department of Energy (DOE) offered the loan guarantee to Southern Co. in February 2010, but the deal can not be finalized until it meets a number of key regulatory approvals.

Chu noted that the loan guarantee is nearing the final stages of approval, less than a week after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued a license for the project.

"We expect that one to close and go forward," Chu told reporters. He added that "there are a number of other milestones" the project must achieve before getting an approval from the DOE.

According to U.S. News & World Report, this marked the first time since the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 that the NRC granted a license for new reactor construction, signaling that the U.S. is ready to move forward with new projects in the sector.

New Jersey Senate Passes Gay Marriage Bill

In a move that supporters called a milestone for civil rights, the State Senate in New Jersey passed a bill to recognize same-sex marriages, a move that Governor Chris Christie has promised to veto, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the vote was 24 to 16 in favor of the bill, a major swing from the 20 to 14 defeat of similar legislation that occurred in January 2010.

Despite the passage of the bill by the State Senate, opponents noted that it was an exercise in futility due to Christie’s veto vow. Len Deo, president of New Jersey Family Policy Council, called the vote “something we have to go through” and noted it would be made a moot point after it reaches the governor’s desk.

According to Bloomberg, Christie opposes same-sex marriage and wants voters to decide the issue in a referendum. New Jersey is one of six States that is currently mulling over the issue, as Washington, Maryland, Illinois, North Carolina and Minnesota have all seen legislation related to gay marriage come through their State governments.

Obama Unveils FY2013 Budget Proposal

President Barack Obama unveiled a $3.8 trillion election-year Federal budget that is loaded with tax increases, deficits and hundreds of billions of dollars in new stimulus spending, The Washington Times reported.

According to the newspaper, Obama said that his plan will "restore an economy where everybody gets a fair shot."

"The economy is growing stronger, the recovery is speeding up," Obama said in a speech at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Va. "We can’t cut back on those things that are important for us to grow."

The Times reported that the President is drawing a number of battle lines for the fall campaign, as he called for short-term spending to create jobs based on proposals that the GOP lawmakers have already rejected.

The Hill reported that Obama's 2013 budget promises $3 billion in deficit cuts over 10 years, mostly through $1.5 trillion in new taxes and an additional $800 billion in savings counted from the end of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Republicans blasted the proposal following the speech by Obama.

"Because he can’t stand by his record, the president is forced to turn to the politics of envy and division. What is fair about proposing the largest tax increase in history on small-business job creators?" House GOP conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) asked rhetorically. 

U.S. Government Seeks To Mine Social Media Sites To Prevent Terrorist Attacks, Uprisings

The U.S. government is looking for software that can mine social media sites to predict everything from future terrorist attacks to foreign uprisings, according to requests posted online by intelligence agencies and Federal law enforcement.

The Associated Press reported that hundreds of intelligence analysts already go through overseas Twitter and Facebook posts to track events that occur abroad. This is not enough, however, as the FBI recently outlined its desire for a digital scan of the entire universe of social media.

“Social media has emerged to be the first instance of communication about a crisis, trumping traditional first responders that included police, firefighters, EMT, and journalists,” the FBI wrote in its request. “Social media is rivaling 911 services in crisis response and reporting.”

The AP reported that the proposals have already raised privacy concerns among advocates who feel that this type of monitoring would have a chilling effect on users.

Information Week reported that the FBI wanted the application that would help it mine for social media to be in the form of a “secure, lightweight web application portal, using mashup technology.”

White House Notes Contraception Compromise Is Done Deal

White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew announced that the Administration of Barack Obama has no plans to compromise further on its mandate that requires all employer-based healthcare plans provide women with free contraceptives, The Washington Times reported.

According to the newspaper, this reaffirming from the White House came despite the harsh criticism from conservatives, Catholic bishops and other religious leaders.

The Times reported that the outcry had Obama backpedaling a bit, as he announced that the religious employers such as universities, charities and hospitals would not have to pay for contraceptive coverage. However, Lew told Fox News that this was as far as the White House would go in terms of a compromise.

“We didn’t expect to get universal support of the bishops or all Catholics,” Lew told the news outlet. “We think that this is something that should put this issue to rest. The President was expecting this policy to be reached over a longer period of time.”

Though the President made a slight compromise by relieving religious organizations of this responsibility, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement declaring the new policy of “grave moral concern.”

Obama Says Public Defends Efforts For Gay Rights

President Barack Obama told supporters at a fundraiser that the public “readily accepts” the efforts by his Administration to grant equal rights to gay citizens, The Washington Times reported.

“The work that we’ve done with the LGBT community, I think, is just profoundly American,” Obama said at a $35,800-per-head fundraiser at a home in Northwest Washington, according to the newspaper. “You should be judged on the merits — not by what you look like, not by how you worship, not by where you come from, not by who you love.”

The President was introduced by Laura Ricketts, the first openly-gay owner of a major league baseball team, who noted that the LGBT community would stand behind Obama in the upcoming election, the Times reported.

POLITICO reported that Obama spoke to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, as he noted that nothing had happened since this move and no issues have arisen with unit cohesion.

“We just kept plodding along, because of that, in some ways, what’s been remarkable is how readily the public recognizes this is the right thing to do,” Obama said of the repeal.

According to the news outlet, the fundraiser netted the President $1,432,000.

Defense Official Notes Pentagon To Push For Women To Serve Closer To Combat

The past decade has seen women in the U.S. military serve valiantly on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Pentagon will soon recommend to Congress that these Americans be allowed to serve in jobs closer to the front lines, according to defense officials.

The Associated Press reported that the new proposed rules are expected to continue to prevent women from serving as infantry, but would formally allow women to serve in other jobs at the battalion level. This type of position had been considered too close to combat until the current push by the Pentagon.

According to the news outlet, women have always been pushed to the front lines by necessity, either as medics, military police or intelligence officers. Though these brave Americans may have ended up in the thick of battle, the new rules would formalize their place closer to combat.

CBS News reported that the Pentagon noted that in Afghanistan and Iraq the U.S. has suffered 144 women killed in action and 853 wounded.

Federal Fellows Program Mistakenly Sends Acceptance Emails To Rejected Applicants

Hundreds of the nation’s top graduate students who applied to a program that grooms future leaders of government agencies have been left fuming following bureaucrats emailing acceptance letters to them by mistake, Fox News reported.

According to the news outlet, the Presidential Management Fellows Program blamed an administrative error for the blunder. Elation turned to confusion for the applicants who wrongly received the email, as the program that is managed by the Federal Office of Personal Management (OPM) disappointed these students.

“As someone who is dedicated to public service, I was really excited when I was named a finalist, and devastated when OPM told me the next day that I was not actually a finalist,” one applicant told Fox News. “However, I may have dodged a bullet, because this incident really highlights the incompetence, inefficiency, disorganization and lack of accountability of the PMF program.”

According to the news outlet, officials from the program realized their mistake and stopped the notifications, but 25 percent of the semi-finalists were notified incorrectly.

Government Executive reported that fewer college students plan to enter government service than in prior years, but holding on to new hires has presented a bigger challenge for the public sector.

Feds Announce Settlement To Address Mortgage Abuses

The President Barack Obama Administration and 49 States announced a record $25 billion mortgage settlement with the nation’s five largest banks, the latest attempt to help homeowners and stop the still-sagging housing market’s drag on the economy, The Washington Times reported.

According to the newspaper, the deal stems from an investigation into foreclosure fraud that was launched in 2010 and is the largest Federal-State civil settlement involving one industry since the 1998 tobacco agreement.

The Times reported that the deal aims to benefit nearly 2 million current and former homeowners who were harmed by abusive mortgage and foreclosure practices during the housing boom and bust that occurred over the past decade.

Obama thanked Democratic and Republican attorneys general across the country for their work on the settlement.

“It cost more than 4 million families their homes to foreclosure,” Obama said in the announcement. “These practices were plainly irresponsible, and we refused to let them go unanswered.”

Fox News reported that about 750,000 Americans who were foreclosed upon will receive checks of $2,000 and the banks will have three years to fulfill the terms of the deal.

GOP Vows To Reverse Contraception Policy, Some Democrats Differ From Obama On Issue

Some members of President Barack Obama’s own party are voicing their displeasure with the Administration on the controversial rule that religious schools and hospitals must provide contraceptive coverage for their employees, Fox News reported.

According to the news outlet, though Democratic women lawmakers have voiced their support of the President on the issue, other members of the party are split over the new birth control policy. Republicans have condemned the move as an “unambiguous attack on religious freedom in our country.”

Representative Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) noted that the decision “violates the long-standing tradition of protection for conscience rights in federal law.”

The White House responded to the outcry by arguing that Obama was sensitive to the objections that people had and was looking for a way to allay the concerns that some groups had over the rule, according to Fox News.

CBS News reported that the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged the President to reverse his decision, as he called the move a “terribly misguided judgement,” and noted the massive negative reaction that occurred.

Arizona Supreme Court Affirms Ruling Barring Woman From City Council Due To Lack Of English Proficiency

The Arizona Supreme Court affirmed a ruling that had barred a woman from running for a city council seat due to the fact that she was unable to speak English at a proficient level, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the State’s highest court ruled that Alejandrina Cabrera should not be allowed to appear on the ballot for the March 13 election in San Luis, but failed to list a reason for the decision. A spokeswoman from the court noted that a full written ruling will be released at a later date.

The AP reported that the case attracted widespread attention after Mayor Juan Carlos Escamilla filed a court action that asked for a determination of whether Cabrera has the necessary English skills required of the position.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Cabrera acknowledged that her understanding of English is weak, but she noted that she knew enough of the language to represent San Luis. Up to 99 percent of the town’s residents are Latino, and Spanish is reportedly spoken throughout the city.

House: Politics Out Of Keystone Debate

WASHINGTON, Feb. 8 (UPI) — A measure, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, takes politics out of a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, a committee said.

U.S. Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., wrote the bill that a Republican-led energy committee said “takes politics out of the pipeline decision” by handing authority to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The bill requires FERC to approve a permit for the Keystone XL within 30 days if a permit from pipeline company TransCanada is considered in compliance with a federal environmental impact statement.

“The benefits of the pipeline are clear — job creation, lower gasoline prices and greater energy security for America,” the House Energy and Commerce Committee said in a statement.

Critics of Keystone XL say backers exaggerate benefits of the project. The House committee defeated a Democratic measure that would ensure Keystone XL would service the domestic U.S. market.

U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said during his testimony that Terry’s measure turns FERC into a “yes-man” for the project. Officials in the U.N. Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and the Office of Energy Projects had testified that FERC doesn’t have authority to approve pipeline permits.

The House measure is unlikely to pass through the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Republican leaders inserted a Keystone XL rider into a measure extending payroll benefits, though the White House objected to the measure saying it imposed an “arbitrary” deadline on the pipeline.

Stock Amendment To Affect Wall Street Traders, Expands Definition Of ‘Lobbyist’

The House will vote on February 8 on its version of a bill that would crack down on Congressional insider trading and political intelligence peddling, The Washington Times reported.

According to the newspaper, this move comes as the version of the bill that the Senate passed last week has raised concerns regarding the notion that the legislation could turn the act of calling a Congressional staffer about a bill a lobbying activity.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) succeeded in adding a provision to the Senate bill that would require any individual who seeks information from a government official to help with investment decisions or analyze markets to register as a lobbyist, according to the Times.

"There is a growing unregulated industry with no transparency," Grassley said in a statement. "If a lobbyist has to register in order to advocate for a school or a church or a private corporation, shouldn’t a lobbyist have to register if they’re seeking information that ends up in making people a profit."

CBS News reported that the Stock Act passed in the Senate by a margin of 96 to 3 and the bill is expected to pass through the House with bipartisan support.

Lawmakers Suggest U.S. Consider Providing Arms To Syrian Rebels

Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other lawmakers asked the U.S. to consider providing arms to the Syrian opposition, as new videos surfaced that allegedly show the bloody aftermath of a massacre in the city of Homs, Fox News reported.

"The bloodletting has got to stop," McCain said in a statement.

The President Barack Obama Administration noted that they preferred the options of humanitarian assistance and increased international pressure, according to the news outlet.

"We don't think more arms into Syria is the answer," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. "We think the answer is to get to a national democratic dialogue, for the violence to stop, for the regime's tanks to come out of the cities and then for monitors to be able to go back in."

The Washington Times reported that Nuland noted that the U.S. was not taking any options off the table, but she spoke to the assertions made by Obama concerning securing peace in the region without an international military intervention. She also spoke to how Libya was a "completely different situation" than what is unfolding in Syria.