NEWS STAND: Health Care Advances, Death Sentences Drop, Minority Farmers Sue, French Debate Identity

Our take on the news headlines.

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News Stand

Closer to Universal Health Care

President Obama's health care bill moved a step closer to passage when Democrats in the U.S. Senate voted to cut off a Republican filibuster. With members voting strictly along party lines, the 60-40 vote indicated that the Democrats had rounded up the votes they need despite vehement opposition from Republicans and sharp criticism from some experts that the legislation may prove costly to taxpayers.

The New York Times reports the decisive vote took place at 1 a.m. in a city still digging out from a record December snowstorm. A final vote on the bill could come on Christmas Eve if there are no other procedural snags. "Health care in America ought to be a right, not a privilege," said Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut. "Since the time of Harry Truman, every Congress, Republican and Democrat, every president, Democrat and Republican, have at least thought about doing this. Some actually tried."

The legislation aims to add some 30 million uninsured Americans to the rolls.   The bills in the House and Senate differ substantially with the House bill still proposing the public option the Senate has dropped. The bills would bar the insurance companies from denying coverage and would require nearly all Americans to buy insurance. Some would be covered through an expansion of Medicaid while moderate-income Americans would receive subsidies from the federal government.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said that the $871 billion cost of the bill would be more than offset by the new revenues and cuts in spending, so that it would reduce future federal budget deficits by $132 billion between 2010 and 2019.

Death Sentences Down

For the first time in 10 years, the number of executions in the United States has not declined.  According to a report from the Death Penalty Information Center, 52prisoners were put to death in 2009, compared to 37 in 2008 and 42 in 2007. The increase is attributed to the de facto moratorium imposed in 2008 while U.S. Supreme Court reviewed the constitutionality of lethal injection.

On the other hand, American juries have become more reluctant to apply the death penalty than in the past. In 2009, the death sentence was imposed in 109 cases, a third of the record number of 328 reached in 1994. In the 1970s, Texas averaged 34 death sentences compared to nine in 2009.

The growing awareness of judicial error may be one reason juries have become reluctant to extract the ultimate price from the convicted. Nine men sentenced to death were exonerated this year, the second highest since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Since 1973, 139 prisoners on death row have been exonerated.  States are also using the high cost of maintaining the death penalty as a reason for abolishing it. This year, New Mexico became the 15th state to ban the death sentence.  According to the center, 34 percent of those executed since 1973 were black, 7 percent were Hispanic and 57 percent were white. The full report is here.

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