Whats In The News

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Week in Review

International

President Barack Obama pointedly warned the Ukrainian military to stay out of the political crisis that has already ravaged Kiev and said the United States would hold the government responsible for further violence.

“We have been watching very carefully, and we expect the Ukrainian government to show restraint, to not resort to violence in dealing with peaceful protesters,” President Obama said.

“There will be consequences if people step over the line,” he added. “And that includes making sure that the Ukrainian military does not step into what should be a set of issues that can be resolved by civilians.”

The President’s decision to address the Ukrainian situation reflects the growing concern by the White House that the standoff between the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovych and demonstrators is increasingly spiraling out of control.

Until now, President Obama has largely left it to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Secretary of State John Kerry to be the Administration’s public spokesmen on the crisis.    He said protesters should refrain from violence.

“But we hold the Ukrainian government primarily responsible for making sure that it is dealing with peaceful protesters in an appropriate way,” he added.

“We have made it clear we would consider taking action against individuals who are responsible for acts of violence within Ukraine,” Benjamin Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to the president, told reporters on Air Force One.

“We have a tool kit for doing that that includes sanctions. Events like what we saw yesterday are clearly going to impact our decision making,” Mr. Rhodes said. He added, if the government pulls back its forces, releases imprisoned protesters and pursues dialogue with the opposition, “that would obviously factor into our calculus as well.”

Expressing alarm at the lethal escalation of political violence in Ukraine, the European Union and the United States responded with threatening punitive sanctions against senior figures in the Ukrainian government. The Obama administration said it had placed 20 top Ukrainian officials on a visa blacklist.

National

President Barack Obama vowed to press ahead with stalled efforts to expand trade agreements for the Americas into Asia and overhaul fractured U.S. immigration laws. But Obama made no promises to Canadian leaders about his decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.

With the leaders of Mexico and Canada, Obama said the North American partners must maintain their "competitive advantage" on trade, in part by expanding into the fast-growing Asia-Pacific region. While Obama acknowledged that "elements in my party" oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, he disputed the notion that Democratic concerns would derail the agreement.

“We’ll get this passed if it's a good agreement,” Obama declared during a joint news conference with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The North America Leaders' Summit coincided with the 20th year of the North American Free Trade Agreement among the three countries, a deal that has vastly expanded cross-border commerce in the region but which remains a contentious issue in the United States over its impact on jobs and on environmental protections.

Trade experts say the agreement is due for an upgrade to take into account the current globalized environment and to address issues not touched in the original pact. But rather than reopen NAFTA, the three countries are instead relying on negotiations underway to complete the TPP, which is a trade bloc of 12 countries in the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.

Pena Nieto heralded the "innovative spirit" that spurred NAFTA and said new trade agreements "are bound to go beyond and enhance all together the progress that each one of our countries has made." And Harper made clear that he was "focused on bringing those negotiations to a successful conclusion.

"The prospects for sweeping immigration legislation this year has dimmed because many House Republicans are unwilling to tackle the issue in a midterm election year. Obama declared: "Immigration reform remains one of my highest priorities."

For Canada, a source of frustration with the U.S. has been the Obama administration's long and drawn out review of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from tar sands in western Canada 1,179 miles to Nebraska, where existing pipelines would then carry the crude to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Canada has been pushing the U.S. for years to approve the pipeline, but environmental groups oppose it, and Obama has said he won't approve it if it increases greenhouse gas emissions. A Nebraska judge struck down a law that allowed the pipeline to proceed through the state, a victory for opponents who have tried to block the project.

While Obama acknowledged that the U.S. review has been “extensive,” he defended the process, saying “These are how we make these decisions about something that could potentially have significant impact on America’s national economy and our national interests.” A final decision on Keystone isn't expected until this summer.

Vice President Biden, in Minneapolis, made a brief unannounced stop at a coffee shop and visited with women who have signed up for health care coverage. Open enrollment under the federal law ends on March 31, after which people without insurance are subject to federal tax penalties.

Biden acknowledged the rocky rollout of the administration's Affordable Care Act website and the difficulty people have had in signing up. “We didn’t want this to start off as shaky as it did,” he said. “But its’ complicated.” The Obama administration projected monthly enrollment targets based on a congressional estimate that 7 million would sign up during the six-month open enrollment period. Signing up enough individuals, especially younger - healthier people, is critical for the insurance pool at the heart of the law to function properly, keeping premiums low for everyone.cann

Although the pace of sign-ups has picked up substantially, there’s still a lot of catching up to do. About 1 million enrolled in January; the first time the administration met its monthly target.

Biden said, "We may not get to 7 million, but if we get to 5 or 6 million, that's a hell of a start.” In total, nearly 3.3 million had enrolled through the end of January. That's about 75 percent of what the administration had hoped to achieve by that point in the open enrollment period.

 Politics

A popular Democratic proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, championed by President Obama, could reduce total employment by 500,000 workers by the second half of 2016. But it would also lift 900,000 families out of poverty and increase the incomes of 16.5 million low-wage workers in an average week.

That is the mixed conclusion of an assessment on how raising the minimum wage would affect incomes, employment and the federal budget. The report was released by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, whose views often have a powerful influence on the fate of legislation.

The analysis provided instant fuel for both supporters and critics of raising the federal minimum wage, a policy heavily favored by Democrats but viewed skeptically by Republicans in Congress. Republicans contended the policy would be a job-killer, while Democrats asserted it would help alleviate poverty. Economists said both might be right.

“Raising the minimum wage could destroy as many as one million jobs, a devastating blow to the very people that need help most in this economy,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader. “If and when Democrats try to push this irresponsible proposal, they should be prepared to explain why up to a million Americans should be kept from having a job.”

Democratic lawmakers and liberal groups joined the White House in challenging that view. “I haven’t seen Republicans this excited about something that bucked the trend in their favor since the last poll showing Mitt Romney was about to be elected president,” said Brad Woodhouse, the president of Americans United for Change, a liberal advocacy group. But sorry to rain on their parade –  one report does not a trend make.”

The budget office found that lifting the federal minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour, would have a complicated effect on the labor market, acting as a boon and a burden for businesses and workers.

Over all, the budget office estimated that lifting the minimum wage to $10.10 and indexing it to inflation would reduce total employment by about 0.3 percent, or 500,000 workers. But it cautioned that the estimate was imprecise, with the job losses likely to fall in a range from practically nothing to one million.

The proposal would result in winners and losers among the low-wage workers it would target, the report found. Some businesses would hire fewer low-wage workers because of a higher minimum wage, the report said.

But increasing the minimum wage would bolster the earnings of about 16.5 million workers: providing $5 billion a year more for families living in poverty, $12 billion a year more for families earning from one to three times the poverty threshold. More conservative economists said that the profession had long viewed raising the minimum wage, like any increase in price, as having an effect on the demand for jobs.

“The Congressional Budget Office (C.B.O) confirms the president proposes an unprecedented increase in the minimum wage that will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs,” said James Sherk, who analyzes the labor markets for the Heritage Foundation, a right-of-center research group. Liberal economists said that quibbling over the jobs numbers neglected a central finding in the report: that many workers would benefit from an increase in income.

“The C.B.O. chose a higher number than I think reflects the best work, but they’re not way off the reservation,” said Jared Bernstein, a former Obama administration economist now at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Even if they’re right, the beneficiaries far, far outweigh the people who are hurt by this.”

The budget office analyzed two proposals in its report. The first would increase the minimum wage to $10.10 by mid-2016 and would tie it to the Consumer Price Index, so that it would increase with inflation over time. It would also increase the minimum wage for workers who receive tips for services.

The second proposal would increase the minimum wage to $9, without any indexing for inflation. That would have much smaller effects, the budget office found. It would reduce employment by 100,000 workers by the second half of 2016, and push about 300,000 people above the poverty line.

The higher minimum wage would reduce employment in two main ways, the budget office report said. Businesses facing higher labor costs would raise prices, passing those higher costs on to their customers. That would lead their customers to cut back on their purchases, meaning that businesses would need fewer workers. Raising the minimum wage would also make hiring low-wage workers more expensive relative to other investments, like new machinery.

Businesses might then reduce their use of low-wage workers and shift their spending toward other things, like automated systems. But a higher minimum wage would offset at least part, if not all, of that effect by helping increase spending by lower income workers throughout the economy.

Several Democratic lawmakers said that the budget office’s findings only underscored the need for the $10.10 minimum wage to pass. “The C.B.O. made it absolutely clear: raising the minimum wage would lift almost one million Americans out of poverty, increase the pay of low-income workers by $31 billion and help build an economy that works for everyone,” said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the minority leader.

Business

President Barack Obama signed an executive order that will attempt to speedup how quickly small businesses gain U.S. government approval for exports or imports. The order is the latest example of Obama using executive authority to act on his own where he can without needing congressional approval. Obama's move has the aim of cutting the time needed for processing and approving for small businesses that export American-made goods.

His order is tantamount to a pledge to complete by December 2016, near the end of his presidency, the International Trade Data System, which aims to be a centralized online access point to connect U.S. Customs, the trade community and 47 government agencies.

The White House said businesses today must submit information to dozens of government agencies, often on paper forms, making businesses wait days for approval before moving goods across the border. The new electronic system should reduce wait times to minutes and "will speed up the shipment of American-made goods overseas, eliminate often duplicative and burdensome paperwork, and make our government more efficient," a White House statement said.

 Health

Too much sitting has been linked to increased risk for health problems such as heart failure and earlier death. Now, a new study finds older adults who sit too much are more likely to be disabled  - regardless of their exercise habits.

“Sedentary behavior is its own separate risk factor [for disability],” said study researcher Dorothy Dunlop, a professor of medicine at the Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. She evaluated the exercise habits of more than 2,000 men and women, aged 60 and above, and their ability to perform normal everyday activities.

"Regardless of how much time they spent in moderate physical activity, the more time they spent being sedentary, the more likely they were to be disabled," Dunlop said. For each additional daily hour of being sedentary, the odds of disability rose about 50 percent, Dunlop said. For instance, a woman aged 65 who was sedentary for 13 hours a day was 50 percent more likely to be disabled than a woman who was sedentary for 12 hours, she explained.

What is it about sitting? Dunlop can't say for sure, but said experts think that sitting for an extended period causes muscles to burn less fat and blood to flow more sluggishly. Idle muscles and sluggish blood flow can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, swollen ankles and diabetes. Dunlop's study found a link, not a cause-and-effect relationship.

However, another expert wonders if the relationship may occur in the opposite way -- that the more disabled people are, the more sedentary they are due to inability to exercise. On average, the men and women spent nine hours a day being sedentary during waking hours.

About 4 percent reported being disabled. Disability was defined as having much difficulty (or inability) in performing activities of daily living, such as getting out of bed, dressing and walking. The study was supported in part by the U.S. National Institute for Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Diseases.

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