Obama Sends Apology Letter To Karzai Following Quran Incident

The Afghan President’s office announced that it had received a letter from President Barack Obama apologizing for the burning of Qurans at a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the statement from President Hamid Karzai’s office said the U.S. ambassador delivered the letter on February 23. In the apology, Obama expressed his “deep regret for the reported incident” and offers his “sincere apologies.”

The statement from Karzai’s office noted that Obama wrote: “The error was inadvertent; I assure you that we will take the appropriate steps to avoid any recurrence, to include holding accountable those responsible.”

CBS News reported that two U.S. troops have been shot to death and four more wounded, as an Afghan soldier turned his gun on his allies in apparent anger over the Quran-burning incident.

A statement from the International Security Assistance Force – Afghanistan, the international coalition in the nation, confirmed that the two American soldiers were killed in the Eastern part of the country by an individual “wearing an Afghan National Army uniform.”

Consumer Watchdog Launches Inquiry Into Overdraft Fees

The newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) launched an inquiry into fees that were charged by banks when consumers overdraw their accounts, a practice that lands financial institutions billions of dollars, MarketWatch reported.

“Overdraft practices have the capacity to inflict serious economic harm on the people who can least afford it,” Richard Cordray, director of the CFPB, said in a statement.

According to the news outlet, banks typically provide overdraft “protection” when their customers overdraw their accounts. The institutions covers the transaction but also charge fees as high as $35 for each overdraft.

The unintended consequence, according to MarketWatch, is that a large percentage of bank profits from overdrafts come from low-income consumers who overdraw their accounts, as a type of short-term loan because they can’t cover living expenses.

The Associated Press reported that banks have marketed overdraft protection services aggressively, as they told consumers that opting out of the service “may prevent you from completing everyday transactions including…medical or health emergencies.” Certain financial institutions increased their fee income through a practice known as “re-ordering,” as they would collect all transactions in a given day and then apply them in order from largest to smallest.

White House Unveils Corporate Tax Reform Plan

The President Barack Obama Administration unveiled a corporate tax reform plan on February 22, lowering the top income-tax rate for corporations while eliminating deductions, Fox News reported.

According to the news outlet, the top income-tax rate, if the plan is adopted, will drop from 35 percent to 28 percent for corporations, and firms with overseas operations will also now face a minimum tax on their foreign earnings. This would work in conjunction with new tax benefits for U.S. manufacturers to provide incentives for keeping work in America.

This new tax plan aims to raise $250 billion over 10 years, as money would come from firms like oil and gas companies, which would lose many large deductions and subsidies along with paying a higher amount of taxes.

"Our tax system should not give companies an incentive to locate production overseas or engage in accounting games to shift profits abroad, eroding the U.S. tax base. Introducing the principle of a minimum tax on foreign earnings would help address these problems and discourage a global race to the bottom in tax rates," according to an outline provided by a senior official from the Administration.

Bloomberg reported that the new tax code, if adopted, will still include incentives for research and development and renewable energy.

Tax Foundation Analysis Shows ‘Fair Share’ Not Paid By All

The idea of a what constitutes a "fair share" when paying taxes to the Federal government has come into question, as an analysis by the Tax Foundation showed that half of the working population pays no income tax at all, according to Fox News.

"The top 10 percent income earners pay about 70 percent of Federal income taxes," Will McBride of the Tax Foundation, told the news outlet. "The bottom 50 percent of tax filers have, they pay almost no Federal income tax. They pay about 3 percent of Federal income taxes."

The "fair share" idea has been championed by President Barack Obama in several speeches and the State of the Union address, but many people who do not have to pay income taxes end up also receiving credits that lead to refunds from the government, Fox News reported.

"Right now about 70 percent of Americans take more out of the tax system than they put into it, according to the Tax Foundation," Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, told the news outlet.

The analysis from the Tax Foundation came after the President released his FY2013 budget, which would see Federal borrowing rise to 76.5 percent of the nation's GDP by 2022, according to Fortune.

U.S., Mexico Agree To Cooperate On Gas And Oil Drilling

The U.S. and Mexico agreed to work together in drilling for oil and gas below their maritime border in the Gulf of Mexico, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mexico's foreign minister signed the deal at a ceremony in Los Cabos, as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Mexican President Felipe Calderon looked on.

The AP reported that the cooperation between the two countries dates back to an agreement between President Barack Obama and Calderon regarding a move to share in the profits and work together to avoid spills.

Clinton said that the deal would help to "ensure safe, efficient, responsible exploration of the oil and gas reservoirs in the Gulf of Mexico."

"These reservoirs could hold considerable reserves that would benefit the United States and Mexico alike," she continued, noting that the agreement would prevent disputes over who should get the rights to the resources and who would do the extraction.

The New York Times reported that the deal is called "The Transboundary Agreement" and will make up to 1.5 million acres of offshore territory claimed by the U.S. available for leasing by June 2012.

Gold Prices Rise After Greek Debt Deal Boosts Euro

The price of gold rose for a second straight day on February 21, as a rally in the euro spurred by an agreement between European finance ministers and Greece helped to boost the value of the precious metal, Reuters reported.

According to the news outlet, Euro zone finance ministers agreed to a $172 billion bailout for Greece, a move which may help the Aegean nation avoid a chaotic default. Private bondholders agreed to take greater losses and Athens committed to make deep cuts in spending.

"Gold is trading more like the other metals – as a risk asset, rather than a risk hedge," David Wilson, an analyst at Citigroup, told Reuters. "You'd have thought that all the macro issues would be supportive for gold, when looking at U.S. and European debt and a slowing China, but it seems to be largely driven by the dollar/euro."

According to CNN, the price of gold rose $24.20 to $1,750.10 an ounce for April delivery, the most actively traded contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange. This marked an increase of 1.40 percent for the commodity. 

Bacon And Eggs, Breakfast Of Choice For Pregnancy

If you’re pregnant and have a hankering for bacon and eggs, you’ve got good nutritional evidence to back up your culinary desires. Research into fetal development shows that the fetal brain needs relatively large amounts of choline for proper growth. Both bacon and eggs are rich in this nutrient which is also found in other meats.

“We may never be able to call bacon a health food with a straight face, but the emerging field of epigenetics is already making us rethink those things that we consider healthful and unhealthful,” says Gerald Weissmann, MD, Editor-in-Chief of the FASEB Journal where the latest study was published. “This is yet another example showing that good prenatal nutrition is vitally important throughout a child’s entire lifetime.”

Epigenetics, the study of how genes behave, shows that an expectant mother’s nutrition influences the behavior of fetal cells. In this study, the choline in bacon and eggs helped fetal brain cells develop regions associated with memory. Nuts are also a good source of choline.

 

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.”