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.

Business Group Files Brief Against Healthcare Mandate Ahead Of Supreme Court Date

President Barack Obama is not allowed to expand healthcare coverage and then mandate every American purchase coverage to subsidize the added costs, a group suing to block the healthcare law said in a brief on February 7, The Washington Times reported.

According to the newspaper, the group laid out its arguments in advance of the landmark Supreme Court case that is scheduled to be heard next month. The National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) asserted that the law forces citizens to subsidize insurance companies that have to provide more encompassing coverage than under previous rules.

"The mandate is an unprecedented and draconian regulation that fails to accommodate the states’ traditional regulatory role and compels individuals to subsidize legal strangers through economically disadvantageous contracts," the NFIB said in its brief.

The court will also rule on whether the rest of the healthcare law can stand without the mandate, according to the Times.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Republican attorneys general at the State level have objected to the healthcare mandate, arguing that Congress lacks the authority to impose such a requirement on a nationwide basis. 

Another Green Energy Firm Stumbles: Fisker Auto Lays Off Workers

Fisker Automotive, the maker of an exotic electric sports car that is being produced with the help of a Federal loan guarantee, has announced layoffs while it is trying to secure more funding from the Department of Energy (DOE), ABC News reported.

According to the news outlet, the company announced that 26 employees have been let go from a factory in Delaware, a site where renowned automotive engineer Henrik Fisker promised to produce affordable electric sedans in the future.

ABC reported that the company is one of a handful of auto companies to receive sizable Federal loans to help stimulate and support a new electric car industry in the U.S.

The Associated Press reported that Fisker has received $193 million of the $529 million DOE loan, mostly for work on a car that sells for roughly $100,000. The introduction of the “Karma” was delayed due to regulatory issues and battery pack problems that prompted a voluntary safety recall.

The layoffs were defended by the company, but Delaware Governor Jack Markell felt the move was damaging to his State.

“We are frustrated that Fisker and the DOE have been unable to come to terms on revisions to their loan agreement in time to avoid this,” a spokesman for the Governor said in a statement.

Obama Notes U.S. And Israel Looking For Diplomatic Solution To Iranian Nuke Problem

President Barack Obama announced that he does not think Israel has decided whether to attack Iran over its disputed nuclear program, leaving the entire Middle East region on edge, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, Obama sought to assure allies and enemies alike that the U.S. was working with the Israelis to solve the crisis, “hopefully diplomatically.”

The AP reported that Obama’s comments came as Israel’s major allies in the West are working hard to talk it out of a unilateral military strike on the nuclear facilities of Iran, as they argued that an attack would only strengthen the leadership in Tehran.

“I don’t think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do,” Obama said during an interview with NBC News prior to the Super Bowl.

CNN reported that the comments by Obama came after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters that there is a growing likelihood that Israel could attack Iran in the Spring. The President noted that both the U.S. and Israel were not taking any options off the table in terms of dealing with the nuclear program spearheaded by officials in Tehran.

U.S. Shuts Down Embassy In Syria, Diplomats Pull Out

The President Barack Obama Administration closed the U.S. embassy in Damascus on February 6, as American diplomats were pulled out in the face of the increasing violence in Syria, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, Robert Ford, the American ambassador, and 17 other U.S. officials left Syria and were expected to travel back home. This came as the international community stepped up pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad to leave power.

The departure of the American diplomats comes two weeks after the State Department warned that it would close the embassy unless Assad's government offered more protection for the mission. U.S. officials cited safety concerns about embassy personnel and a recent series of car bombs, the AP reported.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement that Ford remains the U.S. ambassador to Syria, and noted he would continue his work with the country, maintaining correspondence with the Syrian opposition and supporting "the peaceful political transition which the Syrian people have so bravely sought."

CNN reported that a senior State Department official noted that the Syrian government is being stretched beyond its ability to control the situation, and the myriad of violent elements in the country.

Lawmaker Wants Ban On Federally Funded Anti-Junk Food Campaigns

The issue over whether the Federal government should fund ad campaigns against sodas and junk food has received criticism, as opponents of the practice have noted that taxpayers should not have to foot the bill.

According to Fox News, a bill was introduced to Congress by Representative Scott DesJarlais (R-Tenn.) that would prohibit Federal money from going toward ad campaigns in opposition to junk food and in favor of “safe” foodstuffs and beverages.

“I don’t think it’s the Federal government’s (role) to try and regulate people’s habits on products that were deemed safe by the FDA,” DesJarlais told Fox News. “The government is reaching too far into our lives in trying to regulate personal habits.”

The news outlet reported that the he introduced the bill following a development in New York City regarding an anti-obesity subway poster. DesJarlais noted that $230 million in Federal stimulus money has gone toward this type of ad campaign.

Scripps Howard reported that other critics have noted that Federal stimulus money should be directed to creating jobs and not promoting certain lifestyles.

Pressure From Farmers Leads To Rethinking Of Youth Labor Laws

Succumbing to angry backlash from agriculture groups and family farmers across the U.S., the Administration of President Barack Obama announced it would scale back proposed new rules that would have limited the amount of work young Americans can do on farms, The Washington Times reported.

According to the newspaper, communities across the Midwest had attacked the rules, saying that they threatened a traditional way of life for people in the American heartland and could undermine the viability of many family farming operations.

The Times reported that the Labor Department announced it would “repropose” the new regulations, as the agency wanted to allow for more public comment regarding whether children could engage in farm-related jobs.

“It’s a positive step,” Paul Schlegel, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau, told the newspaper. “We felt that what they were doing was wholly inconsistent with the way the law had been interpreted for decades.”

The Associated Press reported that the American Farm Bureau noted that the laws need to be sensible and within reason, as teenagers shouldn’t be prohibited from performing functions like operating a battery-powered screwdriver.

Mandate On Contraception Outrages Religious Groups

The President Barack Obama Administration’s decision requiring church-affiliated employers to cover birth control led to an uproar among Roman Catholics and members of other faiths, as the regulation, which was finalized a week ago, has sparked intense debate, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, Federal law lays out several criteria for the government to determine which organizations are religious, as the massive network of religious-run social service agencies is not clearly identifiable one way or another.

Critics have noted that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius chose the narrowest criteria for making the determination, and religious groups oppose the rule because it allegedly forces people of faith to choose between upholding church doctrine and following the law.

“It’s not about preventing women from buying anything themselves, but telling the church what it has to buy, and the potential for that to go further,” Sister Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, representing some 600 hospitals, told the AP.

USA Today reported that the move by the Administration to require employers to cover birth control through insurance policies does not require churches themselves to cover contraception and no healthcare provider will be forced to prescribe the medication.

Gold Prices Hold At 11-Week High

The price of gold held near 11-week high levels as the metal benefited from investor expectations that U.S. monetary policy will remain ultra-loose boosted traders’ appetite for the safe-haven metal, Reuters reported.

According to the new outlet, a pledge by the U.S. Federal Reserve in January to keep interest rates at rock-bottom levels and several hints of more monetary easing has helped the precious metal. These moves by the Fed would help to keep the dollar weak and the opportunity cost of holding gold bullion low, as the commodity has risen 12.5 percent this year.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke defended the actions by the bank, noting the U.S. economy still needs support.

“Yesterday’s reaffirmation from the U.S. Fed (chairman) that he is committed to keep rates low… (has) given gold the necessary boost to hold gains and also break key resistance,” Pradeep Unni, senior analyst from Richcomm Global Services, told Reuters.

Bloomberg reported that gold held near the $1,760 an ounce mark, and analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch noted that bullion may reach $2,000 an ounce by the fourth quarter of FY2012.

Cantor Notes House GOP Bill Would Cut Small Business Taxes

House Republicans plan legislation that would grant small businesses a 20 percent tax reduction, a GOP leader noted on February 2, as the party is looking to create job opportunities to compete with President Barack Obama during the election year, The Associated Press reported.

The proposed tax cut would apply to every company with less than 500 employees, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a memo released to the press.

According to the news outlet, the bill will be introduced next month, but an aide noted that no decisions have been made about its price tag, the length of the period when the tax reduction would last and other details.

The AP reported that Cantor emphasized that the GOP proposal would help small businesses “retain and create new jobs” and set a date for when the bill should be approved, as federal income taxes are due in mid-April.

“I hope every Democrat will join us in passing the small business tax cut by April 15,” Cantor said.

POLITICO reported that Cantor also spoke about the highway and infrastructure bill, which he noted was a hallmark of the House Republicans’ job strategy, and said it will hit the floor the week of February 13.

Official Says Plans To Turn Over Taliban Detainees Held At Gitmo In Works

The President Barack Obama Administration has taken “operational steps” to move five Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay as a piece of a confidence-building measure to help further peace talks between the U.S. and the Afghan arm of the organization, a senior Congressional official told Fox News.

According to the news outlet, the development came in advance of a hearing that features senior intelligence officials testifying about the current national security threats. The five detainees that may be chosen were said to be “hand-picked” by the Taliban in preparation for the talks.

Representative Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, noted that the Administration’s efforts to talk with the Afghan Taliban reeked of “desperation.”

“Candidly, I don’t like the direction they are going in (with) reconciliation,” Rogers said. “I base it on the things that I know about how the Taliban works. The tribal relations in the region, and I’ve been on the committee for six years looking at this stuff … it seems like a bit of desperation to try to catch up to their policy of ‘we’re getting out.'”

Reuters reported that one Republican lawmaker said public opposition would escalate sharply if and when the White House notified Congress that it intends to transfer the high-ranking members of the Taliban.

Budget Chief Notes Big Challenges For U.S.

The Federal government faces daunting budget challenges, according to Congress’ chief scorekeeper, which said that a churlish economy, low tax rates and increased spending on Social Security and healthcare are creating a volatile mixture for the U.S., The Washington Times reported.

According to the newspaper, in a best-case scenario, that means a fourth straight year of trillion-dollar deficits, covering the entirety of President Barack Obama’s first term in office and the debt level nearing $20 trillion by the end of this decade.

The Times reported that as Congress continues to extend tax cuts and higher rates of spending, the situation may become much worse, as a total of $10 trillion more in deficits for the next decade will occur.

“Beyond the coming decade, the fiscal outlook is even more worrisome,” the Congressional Budget Office said in its report. “Although long-term budget projections are highly uncertain, the aging of the population and rising costs for health care would almost certainly push federal spending up sharply relative to GDP after 2022 if current laws remained in effect.”

The New York Times reported that the deficit for 2012 will be roughly $200 billion less than in 2011, but the combination of higher taxes and caps on spending will crimp economic growth.

Obama Makes Public Comments On Drone Strike

President Barack Obama publicly acknowledged the deadly drone strike campaign that has been waged on al-Qaida militants operating inside Pakistan and in the tribal regions along the Afghanistan border during an online address on January 30, Fox News reported.

According to the news outlet, during an online question-and-answer session, Obama surprised listeners with seemingly candid answers to a question about the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) worst kept secret: the drone missile strikes inside Pakistan.

“So, obviously, a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and going after al-Qaida suspects who are up in very tough terrain along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the President said in response to a question.

Reporters asked White House spokesman Jay Carney about the President’s comments and he noted that he was “not going to discuss broadly or specifically supposed covert programs.”

The Washington Times reported that Democratic Chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) hinted at criticism of Obama for openly discussing the still classified CIA program, noting the committee was put in a difficult situation due to the secret nature of the strikes.

Komen Foundation Ends Planned Parenthood Partnership

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation, a leading charity for breast cancer, announced that it will be ending its partnership with Planned Parenthood in education and prevention screenings at the health centers across the U.S., Fox News reported.

Komen spokeswoman Leslie Aun told The Associated Press that the cutoff results from the organization’s newly adopted criteria that bars grants to entities that are under investigation by Federal, State or local authorities. This would apply to Planned Parenthood due to the fact that it is the focus of an inquiry launched by Representative Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), as he is looking to determine if public money was spent on abortions.

Anti-abortion groups welcomed the news, as the Alliance Defense Fund praised Komen “for seeing the contradiction between its lifesaving work and its relationship with an abortionist that has ended millions of lives.”

Fox News reported that a statement from Planned Parenthood noted that the Komen Foundation began informing local arms of the non-profit organization that their breast cancer initiatives would no longer be eligible for new grants beyond those agreements already in existence.

CBO Notes Federal Employees Make More Than Similarly Educated Workers In Private Sector

The generous benefit packages that many Federal employees receive have helped these individuals earn significantly better compensation than similarly educated workers in the private sector, according to a report released by Congress’ chief scorekeeper.

The Washington Times reported that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) noted that Federal workers earn 16 percent more in total compensation than comparable private-sector employees. This includes wages and benefits for these individuals.

According to the newspaper, only private-sector workers with the highest levels of education, such as lawyers and doctors, earn more than their counterparts in the public sector.

“For workers at all education levels, the cost of total compensation averaged about $52 per hour worked for federal employees, compared with about $45 per hour worked for employees in the private sector with certain similar observable characteristics,” analysts from the CBO said in the report.

Fox News reported that compensation was 36 percent higher on average for Federal workers with a high school degree, 32 percent higher for Federal employees with some college education and 15 percent higher for Federal workers with a bachelor’s degree.

Congress Attempts To Police Itself On Insider Trading

Members of Congress are looking to regain some sense of trust from the American people, as they have proposed rules that would subject themselves to tougher penalties for insider trading and a requirement to disclose stock transactions within 30 days, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, a procedural vote this week would allow the Senate to pass a bill prohibiting members of Congress from using nonpublic information for their own person benefit or “tipping” others to inside information that they could use for trading.

Senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) co-wrote a bill that would subject any member of Congress who violates the ban on insider trading to investigation and prosecution by the Justice Department and regulatory agencies, the AP reported.

“We can start restoring some of the faith that’s been lost in our government by taking this common-sense step of making members of Congress play by the exact same rules as everyone else,” Gillibrand said of the bill put forth by her and Brown. “We must make it unambiguous that this kind of behavior is illegal.”

The Hill reported that Representative Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) minimum net worth skyrocketed by almost $14 million in 2010 because of smart stock plays and real estate investments by her husband.

Pentagon Prepares For Talks With Iraq

The President Barack Obama Administration is preparing to commence talks with Iraq on ironing out the details of a long-term defense relationship that may include more U.S. training help, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s chief policy aide.

The Associated Press reported that Michele Flournoy, who is leaving her Pentagon post on Feb. 3, told a small group of reporters that the Administration is open to Iraqi suggestions concerning the scope and depth of the defense ties between the two countries.

“One of the things we’re looking forward to doing is sitting down with the Iraqis in the coming month or two to start thinking about how they want to work with” the U.S. military to develop a program of exercises, training and other forms of security cooperation, Flournoy told reporters.

Both sides had considered keeping several thousand American troops in Iraq to help with training, but they failed to reach an agreement prior to the expiration of a 2008 deal that required all U.S. forces to leave, according to the AP.

The New York Times reported that the State Department is operating a small fleet of surveillance drones in Iraq to protect the United States Embassy and consulates in the Arab nation, but Iraqi officials have expressed outrage over these actions.

Congress Attempts To Police Itself On Insider Trading

Members of Congress are looking to regain some sense of trust from the American people, as they have proposed rules that would subject themselves to tougher penalties for insider trading and a requirement to disclose stock transactions within 30 days, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, a procedural vote this week would allow the Senate to pass a bill prohibiting members of Congress from using nonpublic information for their own person benefit or “tipping” others to inside information that they could use for trading.

Senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) co-wrote a bill that would subject any member of Congress who violates the ban on insider trading to investigation and prosecution by the Justice Department and regulatory agencies, the AP reported.

“We can start restoring some of the faith that’s been lost in our government by taking this common-sense step of making members of Congress play by the exact same rules as everyone else,” Gillibrand said of the bill put forth by her and Brown. “We must make it unambiguous that this kind of behavior is illegal.”

The Hill reported that Representative Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) minimum net worth skyrocketed by almost $14 million in 2010 because of smart stock plays and real estate investments by her husband.