Hello, I'm Mark Pearson.
Much of the world's attention in recent days has been drawn to the victims of the tsunami that struck parts of Asia and Africa. As part of the relief effort, the world's richest nations are thinking about freezing debt repayment for nations like Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. The total debt burden for those three countries stands at some $300 billion. Freezing all or part of that debt would allow the stricken nations to channel scarce resources to relief efforts.
On the home front, the big economic news this week was the uneven job market. *The government announced Friday that U.S. employers added 2.2 million jobs to their payrolls in 2004 ... the best showing in five years. *But at the same time, the number of people signing up for jobless benefits last week jumped to its highest level since late September. *The unemployment rate remains at 5.4 percent.
Inside the Washington beltway, the buzz this week was about confirmation hearings. The first of President Bush's second-term nominees went before Congress to make their case ... and among them was USDA Secretary-designate Mike Johanns.
A Senate Agriculture Committee majority on Thursday approved the nomination of Nebraska Governor Mike Johanns as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. He will succeed Ann Veneman as the nation's 28th secretary of agriculture, and is the first of President Bush's second-term nominees to clear a Senate committee.
While his approval was swift, Democratic Senators had tough questions for Johanns regarding mad cow disease.
Democratic Senator Kent Conrad: "It's my understanding that USDA has relied on regulations Canada has in place, but if they are being violated then we're counting on something that's not happening. That raises concern and we need to address it."
They specifically grilled him about the Bush administration's decision last week to re-open borders to Canadian cattle, just one day before the country discovered its second case of mad cow disease in Alberta. Shipments of Canadian cattle were halted in May 2003 after the discovery of the first case.
Senate Agriculture ranking member Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, said Johanns may need to revise the rule published in the Federal Register Tuesday that would re-open the U.S. border to Canadian live cattle and more Canadian beef. He pointed out that his staff's analysis indicates the rule is not as strict on Canadian firms as it is on American packers to remove from the meat supply parts of animals that could spread mad cow disease to humans.
Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas expressed his concerns about persuading other countries, Japan in particular, to re-open their borders to U.S. beef.
Republican Senator Pat Roberts: "There's no reason why we cannot open up this market. Animals 30 months or younger just aren't part of this problem."
Mike Johanns, USDA Secretary Nominee:"I want to emphasize that I'm going to put a tremendous emphasis on trade issues, making sure trade is fair and open to products our farmers and ranchers produce in this country."
The approval of Johanns' nomination on Thursday virtually guarantees that the full Senate will confirm him as the new Secretary of Agriculture. He will resign as governor of Nebraska upon confirmation.