The latest news on Congress, Iraq, Darfur, capital punishment, poverty and gender, Afghanistan, politics, forgiveness, religion, passings, and select editorials and op-eds.

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Congress. GOP Laments Mixed Results As Control of Congress Ends – “Demoralized Republicans adjourned the 109th Congress with a near-empty Capitol, closing the door on a dozen years of nearly unbroken GOP control by spending more time in the final days lamenting their failures — to rein in government, tame the deficit and temper their own lust — than reliving their successes.” Congress’s Last Acts Include Tax Breaks – “The rancorous 109th Congress adjourned with final passage of measures to expand civilian nuclear trade with India, establish permanent trade relations with Vietnam and extend a bevy of expiring business tax breaks.” Incoming Democrats face fiscal minefield – “The outgoing Republican Congress has placed a political time bomb for incoming Democrats: Nearly all domestic programs paid for by the federal government are level funded through mid-February with no adjustments for inflation, a situation that probably will trigger cuts or reductions in such popular areas as veterans’ affairs, children’s healthcare, housing vouchers, and low-income fuel assistance.” Democrats have plans, but they’ll need to pay – “After being out of power for 12 years, Democrats will take control of Congress next month with a wish list of new programs, including more money for college student aid, the No Child Left Behind schools initiative and Medicare prescription drug benefits – plus tax relief for middle-income Americans. But there’s a hitch: The Democrats also have promised to restore fiscal responsibility and not increase the federal deficit.”

Iraq. Iraq Strategy Review Focusing on Three Main Options – “As pressure mounts for a change of course in Iraq, the Bush administration is groping for a viable new strategy for the president to unveil by Christmas, with deliberations now focused on three main options to redefine the U.S. military and political engagement,” Hawks Bolster Skeptical President– “Steady condemnation from conservatives for the Iraq Study Group report may be providing some cover to the Bush administration as it completes its own review of strategy in Iraq, apparently with little enthusiasm for the panel’s prescription of U.S. troop withdrawal and dialogue with Syria and Iran.” Report on Iraq Exposes Divide Within G.O.P.– “The release of the report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group this week exposed deep fissures among Republicans over how to manage a war that many fear will haunt their party – and the nation – for years to come.” Bush Aides Seek Alternatives to Iraq Study Group’s Proposals, Calling Them Impractical– “Administration officials say their preliminary review of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s recommendations has concluded that many of its key proposals are impractical or unrealistic, and a small group inside the National Security Council is now racing to come up with alternatives to the panel’s ideas.”

Darfur. Darfur civilians burned alive after aid truck is attacked – “Gunmen on horseback attacked a truck carrying medicine and aid in Sudan’s war-ravaged Darfur region and killed around 30 civilians, some of whom were burned alive,” Darfur crisis crosses borders – “The crisis in Darfur has exploded in recent weeks, and now threatens to drag fragile neighboring countries into a regional war.” Women demand end to Darfur rapes – “International stateswomen have made a joint call for an end to rape and sexual violence in Sudan’s conflict-torn region of Darfur. Peacekeepers must be sent to protect women there, the group said in a letter published by newspapers worldwide.” U.N. chief sees little progress on rights – “U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave a sober assessment of his own shortcomings as he prepared to leave office at the end of the year, and accused the United States of violating human rights in its war on terror. He also warned Sudan’s leaders that they would be held accountable if they didn’t halt the violence in Darfur, and urged countries with commercial interests in Sudan to pressure the government in Khartoum.”

Capital punishment. Fewer death row inmates for 5th straight year – “Fewer prison inmates were moved to death row in 2005, according to a federal study that says only one more person was executed last year than in the previous year.” Texas is sending fewer to death row – “Texas may lead the nation by far in the number of executions carried out each year, but figures released last week suggest that support here for the ultimate punishment may be on the wane. Over the last 10 years, the number of death sentences imposed in the state has dropped 65%, from 40 in fiscal 1996 to 14 in 2006,”

Poverty and gender. Gender bias ‘increases poverty’ – “Inequality at home between men and women leads to poorer health for the children and greater poverty for the family, says a new study.”

Afghanistan. Afghanistan war nears ‘tipping point’ – “The conflict in Afghanistan has entered a dangerous phase, and the next three to six months could prove crucial in determining whether the United States and its NATO partners can suppress a revitalized enemy – or will be dragged into another drawn-out a
nd costly fight with an Islamic insurgency,” Karzai: `Our children are dying’ – “With his lips quivering and voice breaking, a tearful President Hamid Karzai on Sunday lamented that Afghan children are being killed by NATO and U.S. bombs and by terrorists from Pakistan.”

Politics. Obama’s star power shows on N.H. visit – “Barack Obama , a national political newcomer with an uncomplicated message of hope and promise, won standing ovations from enthusiastic crowds as he tested the New Hampshire landscape for support for a 2008 Democratic presidential run.” Hillary’s Iraq stand seen aiding Obama – “Illinois Sen. Barack Obama can threaten New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s early lead for the Democratic presidential nomination by challenging her vote for the Iraq war, opposition to a speedy troop withdrawal and support for free trade,”

Forgiveness. Ex-hostages in Iraq opt for forgiveness – “Three pacifists who were held hostage for 118 days in Iraq and were released only after a fourth colleague was murdered, publicly forgave their captors Friday. At a press conference in London, the members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) said they were reluctant to testify against four alleged captors in Iraqi custody because of the possibility that they will face harsh punishment, especially the death penalty.”

Religion. Religion for a Captive Audience, Paid For by Taxes– “the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress.”

Passings. Augusto Pinochet, Dictator Who Ruled by Terror in Chile, Dies at 91– “Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte became a symbol of human rights abuse and corruption.”

Jeane Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s Forceful Envoy, Dies– “Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, a beacon of neoconservative thought, helped chart foreign policy from 1981 to 1985.”

Editorial. For the Sake of the Planet “Can religion and science join forces to save the Earth? … religious leaders throughout the United States welcome cooperation with science on preserving the biosphere. Brian McLaren, chairman of the board of the evangelical group Sojourners/Call to Renewal, says: “I am 100 percent enthusiastic about this kind of collaboration.” … Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, said such cooperation was “absolutely, entirely feasible and is already happening in a major way.” (Philadelphia Inquirer)

No `American’ holy book (Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune) – “Dennis Prager, a conservative columnist and radio talk-show host, objects to the holy book on which Rep.-elect Keith Ellison plans to take his oath of office on Jan. 4. The Minnesota Democrat plans to use a Koran instead of a Bible. … poor naive me. … The America I know has a Constitution. In Article VI, it says that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.”

Calming an anxious middle class (Lawrence H. Summers, Los Angeles Times)- “A recent meeting with the incoming freshmen of the 110th House of Representatives made clear to me some of the forces that will shape American economic policy in the next few years. Coming from very different parts of the country and very different political perspectives, each of the new members of Congress has one thing in common: They have all heard from an anxious middle class.”

Desperate for answers to all-important Iraq riddle (James Carroll, Boston Globe) – “So here we are before the Sphinx, with what seems an unsolvable problem. The war is killing our young. The war is devastating the people of Iraq. The war empowers the nihilistic fringe of Islam, which now threatens to ignite the entire Middle East. Because oil is at issue, the global economy is at risk. If America stays in Iraq, the violence will worsen. If America leaves Iraq, the violence will worsen. What can we do to stop this? Even after the Baker commission, no one knows.”

What I’ve Learned (Kofi Annan, Washington Post) – “I want to pass on five lessons I have learned during 10 years as secretary general of the United Nations that I believe the community of nations needs to learn as it confronts the challenges of the 21st century.”

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