Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Notes From All Over

Health Care: Pelosi And Dems Thinking Big

The landmark health care bill about to be signed into law is as large as it is due in no small part to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. When Democrats in Congress and the White House were despondent and inclined to retreat on health care just two months ago, Pelosi stood firm against despair and downsizing. As a result, she could emerge from the yearlong struggle among the most powerful speakers in history.

Those close to Pelosi say she considers health care reform a moral imperative that transcends political ambitions and election cycles. But she invoked those baser ambitions, too, as she coaxed and cajoled everyone from President Barack Obama and his aides to her Democratic troops behind a bill to extend health coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans.

It was an abrupt reminder to those on the White House end of the line: Whatever is said at the big bipartisan meeting, there would be no substantive rewrite of the bill as Republicans were demanding. Obama said he understood and agreed: They were moving in one direction only, toward passage. And soon.

It is considered Pelosi's bill, and Obama's, too. The president campaigned on making health care reform his top domestic priority, shuttled around the country selling the idea on a skeptical public, leaned hard on lawmakers and postponed a foreign trip to see it through.

But there probably would be no comprehensive health care bill without Pelosi's influence, which extended beyond Capitol Hill.

When Democrats panicked after Republican Scott Brown won Edward Kennedy's Senate seat, Pelosi rebuffed feelers by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and others for a smaller version of the bill. She dismissed that approach as incrementalism and derisively dubbed it, "kiddie care."

Observers said Pelosi succeeded in part because of her willingness to work each wavering member's political calculus, their concerns and their moods for a year until the arithmetic added up to the crucial 216 votes required for passage. And that didn't happen until a few hours before the vote late Sunday night, a 219-212 victory.

There was a swagger in her. As Congress was leaving town for last summer's recess, she challenged the notion that liberals in the party might sink the bill because it was not ideologically pure. "Are you asking me, 'Are the progressives going to take down universal, quality, affordable health care for all Americans?' she told reporters. "I don't think so."

With some lawmakers, she was abrupt.

The final crunch did not come until a week before the vote. On the plane from her home near San Francisco back to Washington, Pelosi began making calls to the 68 Democrats said to be wavering on the bill. Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House, is a former Democratic whip, the vote counter, and clearly has not lost that skill.

With others, she delegated. A knowledgeable Democratic official said that Pelosi, a Roman Catholic, asked the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame and frequent appointee to presidential commissions, to call Rep. Joe Donnelly of Indiana on behalf of the legislation. In the end, Donnelly voted yes.

As the week wore on, Pelosi peeled off Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, one of the Democrats holding out because they did not consider the bill to have an adequate firewall against taxpayer dollars being used to subsidize abortion coverage.

The speaker didn't succeed with everyone. On Thursday, she could be spotted sitting in a back corner of the House chamber with Rep. Zack Space of Ohio for more than 30 minutes, talking health care reform. In the end, Space was one of 34 Democrats who voted no.

Sandstorms Blast Beijing With Dust, Grit

Northern China's spring sandstorms blew in with particular ferocity over the weekend, bringing misery to people working outdoors Monday in Beijing and across a wide swath of the country.

The dust works its way through keyholes and window frames, and smells like a filthy brew of dirt, smoke and metallic particles. The sky turns magenta and whole buildings disappear. Eyes tear up and throats get sore from coughing.

The storms are a product of worsening desertification in Inner Mongolia and other Gobi Desert regions hundreds of miles (kilometers) to the north and west of Beijing caused by overgrazing, deforestation, drought and urban sprawl. Strong winds pick up the loose dust and dirt, mixing them with industrial pollution.

Beijing's air quality index was set at Level 4, one grade better than the most serious Level 5 that was reached Saturday as the mixture of sand, dust and pollution blasted the capital. City meteorologists said conditions would improve, but warned the sand would linger through midweek.

Record pollution levels were registered in Hong Kong, 1,240 miles (2,000 kilometers) to the south, partly because of the storms. Schools were advised to cancel outdoor activities and at least 20 elderly people sought medical assistance for shortness of breath, Hong Kong's radio RTHK reported.

Across the 100 mile-(160-kilometer)-wide Taiwan Strait, island residents covered their mouths to avoid breathing in the grit that can cause chest discomfort and respiratory problems even in healthy people. Sand covered cars in just 10 minutes and some flights were canceled because of poor visibility caused by the sandstorm.

Beijing residents hunkered indoors as the fine dust worked its way into homes and offices, cutting visibility to about 3,000 feet (1,000 meters).

Outside, people scurried along sand-strewn sidewalks, covering their faces with gauzy handkerchiefs or donning surgical masks. There were no immediate reports of illnesses connected to the dust.

In a warning posted Monday on its Web site, China's Central Meteorological Station urged Beijing's 22 million people to close doors and windows and safeguard sensitive electronic and mechanical equipment.

China Central Television told viewers to clean out their noses with salt water and remove grit from ears with cotton swabs dipped in alcohol.

In the past decade, Beijing has sought to counter the effects of desertification by planting grass and billions of trees to hold back the desert, mostly to no avail. Along with bringing pollution, the storms underscore a looming water crisis in the north that the government is seeking to head off with a massive project to pump water from the south.

The latest sandstorm was expected to sweep into South Korea on Tuesday, said Kim Seung-bum of the Korea Meteorological Administration. The sandstorm that raked across China over the weekend caused the worst "yellow dust" haze in South Korea since 2005, and authorities issued a rare nationwide dust advisory.

Grit from Chinese sandstorms has been found to travel as far as the western United States.

State television's noon newscast showed the tourist city of Hangzhou on the east coast of China, where graceful bridges and waterside pagodas were hidden in a mix of sand and haze.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing warned that particulate matter in the air made conditions "hazardous," although high winds dispersed some of the pollution and the air quality was later upgraded to "very unhealthy."

Duan Li, a spokeswoman for the Beijing Meteorological Station, said conditions in the city seemed more severe because a sandstorm Saturday deposited grit on rooftops, sidewalks and trees. The winds Monday carried in even more sand and stirred up what was already there.

The last massive sandstorm to hit Beijing was in 2006, when winds dumped about 300,000 tons of sand on the capital.

Boy Hit, Killed By School Bus In Minnesota

Authorities say a 6-year-old boy has died after being hit by a school bus in the central Minnesota town of Pine River.

Cass County Sheriff Randy Fisher told The Brainerd Dispatch that the boy was struck after being let off the bus Monday afternoon. Authorities did not release the boy's name, pending notification of relatives.

Fisher says authorities are still trying to determine exactly how the accident happened.

Pine River-Backus schools transportation director Tom Bristow says the bus driver is "devastated." Pine River is about 20 miles north of Brainerd.

Man Stabs, Kills 6 Elementary Kids In China

A knife-wielding man stabbed and killed six children and injured seven others Tuesday at an elementary school in eastern China, a state news agency reported.

The assailant was arrested after the 7:20 a.m. attack, Xinhua News Agency said. He was described as a middle-aged, former community clinic doctor who is thought to have mental illness.

The wounded students from Nanping City Experimental Elementary School were in stable condition at a hospital, Xinhua said, citing a statement from the city's Communist Party office.

A man surnamed Wu in the city government office confirmed six children were killed and seven injured. The school, located in Fujian province, was closed and students were sent home.

China has witnessed a series of school attacks over the past several years, which are often blamed on personal grudges or people with psychiatric problems, leading to calls for improved security.

Teacher Has Students Punch Another, Mom Says

A teacher encouraged several students to punch a classmate in the face on a field trip, KPRC-TV in Houston reported. The problems started when Devarius Williams, 5, and other children from the Robindell Private School took a field trip to a restaurant last week. Devarius' parents said he got into a fight.

Devarius' mother, Barbara Mobley, said the teacher had her own idea of discipline.

"The teacher that was driving his particular van got him and his group together and said, 'When we get on the van, I want everybody to punch Devarius in the face because he punched the little girl in the face,'" Mobley said.

Mobley estimated that at least a dozen children hit her son.

"As each child got on the bus, she said, 'Go,'" Mobley said. "They punched my son and went and sat down."

The school says it reacted quickly.

"It was a big mistake. She should have never done it," said Robindell's director and part-owner, Chuck Wall.

Wall said he quickly investigated. He said the teacher was fired within 30 minutes of the complaint.

"It was a very, very good teacher that we fired," Wall said. "She had been with me for six or seven years now; was one of my best pre-K teachers who had a moment of weakness, out of frustration, and dealing with a child she's had a problem with over the last several months."

The state said the school is supposed to report incidents within two days. A Department of Family and Protective Services representative said there were two reports filed. Robindell's director said he did not file a report because he did not believe the child was hurt. Devarius' mother said the punches could have ended her child's life because of major health problems.

Community leader Quanell X said, "You're dealing with a child that has a severe medical condition that any blow to his head could cost this baby his life. We're absolutely angry and appalled by the behavior of the director of this school We're calling on the director of the state regulatory agency that regulates this specific school to shut it down."

Wall does not think that is necessary.

"We're going to have humans here who make mistakes. If we tried to sweep this under the rug or not do something with this teacher, then I could see his point."

The state is investigating. It has 30 days to complete its report. Mobley said she has removed Devarius and her other children from the school.

India To Weaponize World's Hottest Chili

The Indian military has a new weapon against terrorism: the world's hottest chili. After conducting tests, the military has decided to use the thumb-sized "bhut jolokia," or "ghost chili," to make tear gas-like hand grenades to immobilize suspects, defense officials said Tuesday.

The bhut jolokia was accepted by Guinness World Records in 2007 as the world's spiciest chili. It is grown and eaten in India's northeast for its taste, as a cure for stomach troubles and a way to fight the crippling summer heat.

It has more than 1,000,000 Scoville units, the scientific measurement of a chili's spiciness. Classic Tabasco sauce ranges from 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units, while jalapeno peppers measure anywhere from 2,500 to 8,000.

"The chili grenade has been found fit for use after trials in Indian defense laboratories, a fact confirmed by scientists at the Defense Research and Development Organization," Col. R. Kalia, a defense spokesman in the northeastern state of Assam, told The Associated Press.

"This is definitely going to be an effective nontoxic weapon because its pungent smell can choke terrorists and force them out of their hide-outs," R. B. Srivastava, the director of the Life Sciences Department at the New Delhi headquarters of the DRDO said.

Srivastava, who led a defense research laboratory in Assam, said trials are also on to produce bhut jolokia-based aerosol sprays to be used by women against attackers and for the police to control and disperse mobs.

AP; The Wall Street Journal; National Weather Service; Xinhua; Reuters; KPRC-TV, Houston, TX, BBC World.

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