Federal Government In Red For 39th Straight Month

The Federal government ran a deficit in December, the 39th straight month in the red, according to preliminary reports from the Congressional Budget Office.

The Washington Times reported that the streak dates back to the last days of former President George W. Bush and encompasses the entirety of President Barack Obama’s tenure.

According to the newspaper, not only is the government acquiring more debt each month, but the deficit of $84 billion in December was slightly higher than the number for that month in 2010. Payments to housing finance giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae accounted for much of the growth in spending.

Corporate income tax receipts were up, the Times reported, while payroll tax receipts were down due to the tax cut Congress and Obama agreed to a year ago.

USA Today reported that the U.S. national debt recently reached a symbolic tipping point, as it is now as big at the entire American economy.

“The 100 percent mark means that your entire debt is as big as everything you’re producing in your country,” Steve Bell of the Bipartisan Policy Center told the newspaper. “Clearly, that can’t continue.”

Gold Price Rises As Euro Rebounds

The price of gold rose by a significant margin as a resurgence of the euro versus the dollar, bringing the value of the metal past a 200-day moving average, according to Reuters.

Bloomberg reported that gold reached its highest price in almost three weeks due to speculation concerning an increase in physical demand for the metal. Coupled with the rise of the euro, the move by traders to the commodity pushed the value higher during trading.

According to the news outlet, the U.S. Mint sold 79,000 ounces of gold to date for the month of January, topping the total sales for the metal that were recorded during December.

“Physical investment and jewelry demand has been strong into price falls below $1,650, with Chinese buyers particularly active,” Nick Moore, an analyst at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, told Bloomberg. He noted that demand from China “is likely to increase this month irrespective of price, in the run-up to the Chinese New Year Holiday.”

The price of gold for February delivery rose $24.40 to $1,632.50 an ounce, marking an increase of 1.52 percent, according to CNN.

New Jersey Republican Leader Dies At Statehouse

The Republican leader of the New Jersey Assembly collapsed and died at the Statehouse in Trenton on Monday, the final day of the legislative session, The Associated Press reported.

Assemblyman Alex DeCroce, 75, collapsed in a men’s room at the Statehouse and was pronounced dead at the scene. Governor Chris Christie, a personal friend of the lawmaker, confirmed the death of his fellow Republican.

“Tonight I lost a dear friend, colleague and mentor,” Christie said in a statement. “He helped to give me my start in elective politics in Morris County in 1993. He was one of the most kind, considerate and trustworthy people I have ever had the pleasure to know. This is an enormous loss for our State and for me personally.”

DeCroce’s death shocked lawmakers and legislative staff who had been working with him all evening as the State Legislature was ironing out the details on a flurry of last-minute bills, according to the AP.

CNN reported that DeCroce was the Republican leader in the New Jersey General Assembly since 2003.

U.S. Man Sentenced To Death In Iran

An Iranian court has convicted an American man of working for the CIA and sentenced this individual to death, state radio reported on Monday, in a case that may add to the tension between the U.S. and Iran, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, Iran charges that as a former U.S. Marine, Amir Mirzaei Hekmati had received special training and served at bases in Iraq and Afghanistan prior to being sent to Iran for his alleged intelligence mission for the CIA.

State radio in Iran did not say when the verdict was issued, and Hekmati has 20 days to appeal the decision under Iranian law. The 28-year-old former translator for the military was born in Arizona and graduated from a Michigan high school. According to the AP, his father claims that his son is not a spy and was simply visiting his grandmother in Iran.

The New York Times reported that Hekmati is the first American to receive a death sentence in Iran since the Iranian revolution took place 30 years ago. He has been imprisoned in the Middle Eastern country since August.

Hardship Claim Extended For Potential Immigrants

In a move that seeks to streamline the immigration process, the President Barack Obama Administration proposed new hardship rules to make it easier for illegal immigrants to apply for legal status and remain in the U.S., The Washington Times reported.

According to the newspaper, the latest move by the Administration would help to ease the burden for illegal immigrants in the U.S., and supporters cheered it as a tremendous victory for these individuals.

The Times reported that Homeland Security officials said the change only applies when an illegal immigrant has a family member living in the U.S. legally who would undergo “hardship” if separated from each other.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said that Obama was “bending long established rules to put illegal immigrants ahead of the interests of American citizens and legal immigrants. “Who is the president batting for — illegal immigrants or the American people?” the lawmaker asked rhetorically.

The Texas Tribune reported that the proposal would be posted in the Federal Register, and would be subject to a public comment period. Changes to the rule may take effect later this year.

China Slams New U.S. Defense Strategy

China slammed America’s new Asian-focused defense strategy, noting that its accusations of a lack of opening in Beijing’s military policy were both “groundless and untrustworthy,” The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the new strategy, outlined last Thursday, shifts the focus of the U.S. military away from the Middle East and makes a renewed commitment to assert American influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

In response to this new strategy, China said it was committed to peaceful development and a defensive policy. According to the AP, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters that their strategic intent was clear, open and transparent.

“Our national defense modernization serves the objective requirements of national security and development and also plays an active role in maintaining regional peace and stability. It will not pose any threat to any country,” Liu told reporters. “The charges against China in this document are groundless and untrustworthy.”

Reuters reported that the new U.S. strategy will include keeping large bases in Japan and South Korea and the deployment of marines, Navy ships and aircraft to Australia’s Northern Territory.

DHS To Launch Hotline For Jailed Immigrants

The Department of Homeland Security is launching a hotline for individuals who have been jailed on immigration charges and believe they are victims of a crime or may be U.S. citizens, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the toll-free hotline – 855-448-6903 – will be staffed 24 hours a day and run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to answer questions from people held in local jails concerning possible deportation proceedings.

The AP reported that the hot line is the latest move by the Administration of President Barack Obama to address concerns about alleged illegal immigrants held in local jails. In early December, Homeland Security ended agreements that allowed deputies at an Arizona sheriff’s office to check the immigration status of local inmates.

This practice was halted after a Justice Department report outlined allegations of discrimination and racial profiling against Latinos.

The Los Angeles Times reported that interpreters will be available for alleged illegal immigrants who speak other languages.

“ICE personnel will collect information from the individual and refer it to the relevant ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations field office for immediate action,” immigration officials said in a statement.

White House Announces Federal And Private Sector Job Opportunities For America’s Youth

The White House announced “Summer Jobs+,” a new call to action for the government, non-profits and businesses to work together to provide low-income and disconnected inner-city youth with a path to employment, according to a government release.

President Barack Obama proposed $1.5 billion for high-impact summer jobs and year-round employment for low-income youth ages 16 to 24 as part of the “Pathways Back to Work Fund.”

“America’s young people face record unemployment, and we need to do everything we can to make sure they’ve got the opportunity to earn the skills and a work ethic that come with a job,” said Obama.  “It’s important for their future, and for America’s.  That’s why I proposed a summer jobs program for youth in the American Jobs Act – a plan that Congress failed to pass.”

The Associated Press reported that the White House said with the help it has received from the private sector it has secured commitments for nearly 180,000 youth employment opportunities for next summer. Republicans have charged that the Federal government is taking credit for positions that were going to be created anyway, at places like CVS and Bank of America.

Wisconsin Governor Says Unions Have Made It Personal

With impending June recall election becoming all the more certain, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has said the debate is no longer just about collective-bargaining rights, as union leaders have made it personal, The Washington Times reported.

"They want me dead. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration," Walker said in an interview with the newspaper.

The Times reported that his opponents have until January 15 to collect roughly 540,000 signatures and trigger another election. This would likely center around the successful efforts by the Governor to strip some of the collective-bargaining rights from teachers and other government employees.

This move was made by the Governor out of an effort to close budget gaps and put Wisconsin back on more solid footing, according to the newspaper.

The Hill reported that Walker, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, urged his fellow governors to seek "structural reforms" like eliminating collective-bargaining rights.

"If you are going to do it, don’t go halfway," Walker said. The Governor also suggested that House Budget Committee Chairman Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) shares his views.

Former CIA Chief Calls Iran Greatest Threat To U.S.

Tehran will be the top threat in 2012, former CIA Director Michael Hayden predicted as Iran dominates the foreign policy debate in the U.S., according to Fox News.

“It is the single greatest destabilizing element right now with regards to global security,” Hayden told the news outlet. He noted that the trajectory that the Mideast nation is on concerning nuclear weapons and the recent Strait of Hormuz incident is one that the world should fear.

Hayden went on to say that the threats by Iran to close the waterway suggests that officials in Tehran may commit an “unforced error” in the next year.

The U.S. is not the only country that sees the Iranian threat as an impediment to the world’s progress, as Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper opined that the country must be put in check, according to The Jerusalem Post.

“In my judgment, [Iran] is the world’s most serious threat to international peace and security,” Harper said during an interview with a Canadian radio station. “The is a regime that wants to acquire nuclear weapons.”

New Defense Plan To Shift Focus To Asia

President Barack Obama is helping to coordinate a new Pentagon strategy for absorbing hundreds of billions of dollars in defense budget cuts, as this move will mark a turning point in U.S. security policy, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, Obama planned to make an appearance in the Pentagon press briefing room to announce the results of a strategy review that he ordered last spring. The aim of this was to streamline the military in an era where budgets are lower and to reassess the defense priorities in light of what is occurring in Asia.

The AP reported that Obama’s decision to announce the results himself underscores the political dimension of the debate in Washington over defense savings. The Administration has noted that cuts to the budget are essential, but will not come at a cost to the strength of the U.S. military.

According to POLITICO, the strategy focuses on crafting a nimble, tech-savvy military capable of swooping in to confront terrorists on a global scale. This force will supposedly be able to deter the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea, along with countering a rising China in the western Pacific.

Obama Appoints Three To Labor Board, Bypasses Congress

Only hours after appointing the head of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau while Congress was not in session, President Barack Obama bypassed opposition from the GOP to appoint three individuals to the National Labor Relations Board, Fox News reported.

According to the news outlet, the move was praised by union leaders, but Republicans threatened legal action and said Obama is setting a dangerous precedent in bypassing Congress.

Fox News reported that the board usually has five members, but has only been operating with three. It lost another member this week, hampering its ability to conduct regular business.

“The American people deserve to have qualified public servants fighting for them every day – whether it is to enforce new consumer protections or uphold the rights of working Americans,” said Obama during an announcement. “We can’t wait to act to strengthen the economy and restore security for our middle class and those trying to get in it, and that’s why I am proud to appoint these fine individuals to get to work for the American people.”

Reuters reported that the new members of the board will be sworn in for 18-month terms, and the five-member panel will consist of three Democrats and two Republicans.

Ohio Quake Tied To Shale Gas Operations

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio, Jan. 5 (UPI) — Pumping wastewater from shale gas operations deep underground was the likely cause of minor earthquakes recorded recently in Ohio, scientists said.

A 2.7-magnitude earthquake rocked Ohio on Christmas Eve, followed by a 4.0-magnitude quake on New Year’s Eve.

Ohio authorities called on scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to conduct seismic studies of an area near Youngstown, Ohio, after nine small earthquakes were recorded last year.

All of the quakes were recorded within a 5-mile radius of a wastewater injection well run by Northstar Disposal Services, Scientific American reports.

Scientists with the Earth Observatory said the holiday quakes were triggered by operations tied to shale gas work in the area. John Armbruster, a lead scientist at the observatory, said the two quakes were centered within a half-mile of the injection well.

Armbruster’s team said the quakes were triggered by wastewater from shale gas operations that acted as a lubricant at a fault located about 1 mile underground.

Ohio lawmakers called on shale operators to stop working in the region during an investigation into the quakes.

Most criticism of shale gas has focused on the chemicals used in the process. A similar quake was associated with shale operations in Great Britain last year.

White House: Iran Threatening Over Strait Of Hormuz Because It’s Weak

In another installation of the dramatic series of exchanges between the U.S. and Iran, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Iran is making threats on the Strait of Hormuz because the country is in a position of weakness, The Hill reported.

“It’s the latest round of Iranian threats and it’s confirmation that Tehran is under increasing pressure for its continued failure to live up to its international obligations,” Carney said at a press briefing on Tuesday. “Iran is isolated and seeking to divert attention from its domestic problems.”

According to the news outlet, U.S. and Iranian officials have been launching proverbial volleys since Iran threatened last week to close the Strait of Hormuz. This waterway is a key passage into the Persian Gulf through which nearly 20 percent of the world’s oil supply travels.

Bloomberg reported that Iran’s closing of the Strait would cut demand for the largest tankers by blocking their busiest route. Erik Nikolai Stavseth, an Oslo-based analyst at Arctic Securities ASA, noted that the closing of the passage would lead to a drop in volumes and negative ton-miles for oil companies and their vessels.

State Panel Recommends Putting California High-Speed Rail Project On Hold

A state-appointed panel said Tuesday that California’s plan to build a high-speed rail system in the state is not financially feasible and needs to be placed on hold, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the report from the California High-Speed Rail Peer Review Group noted that the state should not authorize the necessary $2.7 billion in bonds that would be used to build the initial section of the system.

The AP reported that in November, the California High-Speed Rail Authority approved a plan that requests $2.7 billion in state bonds to match the $3.5 billion that was granted by the Federal government. The funding would be used to build 130 miles of track between Chowchilla and Bakersfield.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Governor Jerry Brown has said he intends to ask the legislature this month to provide the funding, but the plan had been facing criticism even prior to the panel’s issuance of the report.

The panel cited a lack of clarity in the business plan that was unveiled in November as one of the reasons for their findings, according to the newspaper.

Lawsuit Alleges Maryland Not Doing Enough To Desegregate Schools

More than 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public education, a court will decide if Maryland is providing enough support to the State’s historically black colleges and universities, The Wall Street Journal reported.

According to the newspaper, a lawsuit was brought against the State by a group largely made up of students and alumni from the schools and accuses Maryland of repeatedly failing to fulfill promises to help desegregate the institutions.

The Journal reported that the suit claims the State’s higher education commission devoted millions of dollars to “traditionally white institutions” and this alleged favorance has made it difficult for the black schools to recruit and retain the best students and faculty members.

“The state of Maryland has systematically failed to desegregate these four schools,” Jon Greenbaum, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, who are seeking in excess of $2 billion in funding for their schools, told the newspaper. “Elements that trace back to the 1930s and ’40s are still very a part of the state’s higher-education system.”

The Associated Press reported that opening statements begin on Tuesday in the bench trial that is expected to last six weeks.

White House And GOP Battle For Control Of Keystone Pipeline Project

President Barack Obama and Congress are starting the new year off locked in a tussle over the proposed 1,700-mile oil pipeline that would stretch from Canada to Texas, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the White House will be forced to make a risky choice between supporting the environmental advocates who are against the pipeline and the labor unions who favor the Keystone project due to its potential to create thousands of jobs.

The AP reported that Obama was able to dodge the issue in November, as the “Keystone conundrum” decision was delayed by the State Department, which said it would wait until after the 2012 election and extra research was done on the project.

Leadership from the TransCanada company noted that they would do whatever it takes to get approval for the project.

“We’ve had more than enough surprises on this,” TransCanada spokesman Shawn Howard told the news outlet.

The Hill reported that the State Department has said the Obama Administration will have no choice but to reject the project due to the expedited timeline that has been pushed by Republicans, as the agency noted this would not leave enough time for review.

Gold Prices Rally To Start 2012

After posting gains for the 11th straight year in 2011, gold experienced gains as the commodity markets ushered in the new year with good news for precious metal buyers.

Reuters reported that the price of gold rose by a significant margin as investors started off the new year with a renewed interest in riskier assets such as commodities.

According to the news source, better-than-expected manufacturing data from China fuelled interests among investors who had abstained from trading at the end of 2011 because of year-end credit conservatism. A weaker U.S. dollar also helped to fuel growth in the precious metals market.

“Everyone is a bit more optimistic at the beginning of the year,” Ong Yi Ling, an analyst at Phillip Futures, told Reuters of the positive start for commodities. The metals expert noted that gold may reach levels near the record high posted in 2011, but it may not be until the end of the year.

The price of gold for February delivery rose $25.20 to $1,592.00 an ounce on the New York Mercantile Exchange, marking an increase of 1.61 percent for the commodity, according to CNN.

Book Claims Petraeus Almost Quit After Afghan Drawdown

Four-star General turned CIA Director David Petraeus almost resigned as Afghanistan war commander over President Barack Obama’s decision to draw down surge forces, according to a new book about the career of the Army veteran.

The Associated Press reported that the book, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, traces the career of the former General, from his days at West Point to his command of both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

According to the news outlet, which received an advance copy of the book, Petraeus decided that resigning would be a “selfish, grandstanding move with huge political ramifications” and that now was “time to salute and carry on.”

The AP reported that the book describes Petraeus’ frustration at still being labeled an outsider from the Obama Administration, even though he retired from the military at the request of the President before taking the job as the CIA’s 20th director.

Massachusetts Senate Race Leads To Big Spending

Outside groups on both sides of the Massachusetts Senate race are spending millions of dollars to endorse their choice and attack the opposing candidate, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the race between Elizabeth Warren and Senator Scott Brown has gained national attention, as the seat that was held for nearly 50 years by Edward M. Kennedy is open in 2012.

The AP reported that the race in Massachusetts may foreshadow what the national election will be like, as special interest groups and Super PACs will likely play a significant role.

“Massachusetts is at the end of the spear of what will be the big trend and the big story of 2012,” Ken Goldstein, president of Campaign Media Analysis Group, which tracks spending on political ads, told the news outlet.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the Massachusetts race is representative of the two sides of the political spectrum, as Warren has offered her support for the Occupy Wall Street protests while Brown is campaigning on traditional Republican themes of smaller government and lower taxes.

Economists Rate Obama’s Policies Fair Or Poor

President Barack Obama received mediocre marks for his handling of the economy in a survey of economists by The Associated Press.

The news outlet reported that the economy is struggling to recover from the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, as the housing market remains weak, the unemployment rate is up from when Obama took office and the European debt crisis is threatening further growth.

Half of the 36 respondents to the AP survey rated Obama’s economic policies as “fair” and 13 of those surveyed called them “poor.” Only five of the economists gave the President “good” marks and none rated him as “excellent.”

According to the news outlet, the criticisms from economists vary, as some note his healthcare overhaul provided a distraction for the President while others have targeted his “poorly designed” $862 billion stimulus program.

“Healthcare reform wasn’t necessarily the most important thing to be dealing with when you’re in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression,” Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economics, told the AP.

The Miami Herald predicts that 2012 will be more of the same in terms of the economy, as experts have noted that it will not be much worse than 2011, but not much better.

New Laws To Take Effect In 2012 After Conference Of State Legislatures

The National Conference of State Legislatures issued its annual list of laws set to take effect in 2012, as several States prohibited the sale of certain products and medicines or made acquiring these items more difficult, The Washington Times reported.

According to the newspaper, California and Oregon passed laws prohibiting the sale, trade or distribution of shark fins – used in shark-fin soup – and the former also became the first State in the country to require a prescription for any drug containing dextromethorphan. This ingredient is found in many popular over-the-counter cough suppressants.

The Times reported that voter identification continued to be a hot topic for legislators in 2011, as four States, including Kansas, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas, approved laws that required voters to present photo identification before casting a ballot.

POLITICO reported that a handful of States also passed laws in 2011 restricting texting and the use of cell phones while driving, and in several Southern States businesses will need to enroll in the Federal E-Verify program to work, requiring confirmation of their employees’ immigration status.

U.S. Eyes Talks With Taliban In 2012

The President Barack Obama Administration is hoping to restore momentum in 2012 to U.S. talks with the Taliban insurgency that had reached a critical point before falling apart in December, The Associated Press reported.

According to the news outlet, the talks began to falter after Afghan President Hamid Karzai objected to the correspondence, U.S. and Afghan officials said. One goal of the renewed communication would be to identify cease-fire zones that may be used as a steppingstone towards a full peace agreement.

The AP reported that officials from the State Department and White House plan to continue a series of secret meetings with representatives of the Taliban in Europe and the Persian Gulf next year. This is reliant on the assumption that a small group of emissaries from the group would remain willing to do so.

The Taliban is about to open its first official office, according to Afghan and Western officials, as the group is expected to began operating a site in Qatar within the next several months, ABC News reported.