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News Wrap: Stocks Plunge Ahead of January Jobs Report

February 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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In other news Thursday, stocks fell across the board on fears over the January unemployment report out Friday, and Senate Democrats announced plans to pass a jobs bill as early as next week.

JEFFREY BROWN: And still to come on the “NewsHour”: The road gets rougher for Toyota; Haiti’s government struggles to rise from the rubble; and the lighter side of a dismal science.

JIM LEHRER: But, first, the other news of the day.

Here’s Hari Sreenivasan in our newsroom.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It was a long day on Wall Street. Stocks plunged after new claims for unemployment benefits rose unexpectedly. That sparked fears about the January jobs report, due out tomorrow. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 268 points to finish at 10002, its lowest close since November. The Nasdaq fell 65 points to close at 2125.

Oil prices joined the freefall. The cost of crude in New York trading dropped 5 percent, ending near $73 a barrel. Global markets also retreated. Mounting debt in Portugal, Spain, and Greece was behind the plunge across Europe. Government deficits in those countries have raised concerns about possible defaults. That, in turn, dragged the euro to a seven-month low against the U.S. dollar.

Senate Democratic leaders announced plans today to pass a jobs bill next week. The measure would include tax breaks for businesses that hire unemployed workers. It would cost $11 billion over 10 years.

Majority Leader Harry Reid says he’s hopeful the bill will win bipartisan support.

SEN. HARRY REID, D-Nev.: Our agenda is not about politics or partisanship. We have a jobs agenda. It’s about putting people back to work. Our motivation is to help Americans sleep a little better. Our mission is not to stop until every American who wants a job can get a job.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There were signs some Republicans might join in supporting the bill. Senator John McCain said he’s willing to talk, if Democrats are willing to try something different.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: The stimulus package didn’t work. We proposed a stimulus package that would have worked. And, so, I will be glad to examine it. And we want to work with the president and the Democrats, but that means sitting down at the table together, something we have not done yet.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Senate bill would also extend about $33 billion in popular tax breaks that expired at the end of last year.

The House voted today to raise the federal debt limit to more than $14 trillion. The vote was 217 to 212. It increases the government’s borrowing authority by $1.9 trillion. The Senate narrowly approved the bill last week. The president is expected to sign it.

The state of New York has filed civil fraud charges against Bank of America and its former CEO Ken Lewis. They’re accused of failing to disclose losses at Merrill Lynch before buying the failing bank in 2009. Bank of America received an extra $20 billion from the government to offset the losses. It has since repaid the money.

For the record, Bank of America is a “NewsHour” underwriter.

In Afghanistan, a suicide car bomber killed at least six people in Kandahar. The attack came as the overall U.S. commander upgraded his assessment of things. General Stanley McChrystal said: “I believe the situation in Afghanistan is serious. I do not say now that I think it is deteriorating.” Last summer, McChrystal painted a darker picture. Today, he said, “I feel differently now.”

The field of brain research focused today on what could be breakthrough findings in Britain and Belgium. Brain scans found some patients in persistent vegetative states, or PVS, show signs of brain activity after all. In some cases, they even visualized answers to simple questions.

We have a report from Julian Rush of Independent Television News.

JULIAN RUSH: If you ask healthy people to imagine different situations, different parts of their brain become active and light up under an MRI scan.

It turns out that for a handful of the persistent vegetative state patients the scientists tested, the same was true, even though they appeared to be unresponsive. And that opened a way to communicate.

For yes, they were asked to imagine they were playing tennis, for no, that they were walking through to rooms in their home. To the Cambridge scientist who developed the technique, the responses imply the PVS patient had some degree of consciousness and awareness, trapped within their immobile bodies.

DR. ADRIAN OWEN, neuroscientist, Medical Research Council: We really should be trying to scan as many of these patients as we possibly can, because, I mean, this sort of study clearly shows that some patients, albeit a minority, are being inappropriately diagnosed.

So, they’re not getting a diagnosis that actually describes the situation that they’re in. So, even though, behaviorally, neurologically, they might appear to be vegetative, in the scanner, we can tell that there’s more going on.

JULIAN RUSH: On the face of it, being able to ask if they’re feeling pain and then doing something about it might well mean it would be possible to improve their well-being. But can you, should you, ask if they want to die or to carry on living? And should the courts now ask for this technique to be tried before decisions are taken to switch off life support systems?

But there’s no guarantee this technique could help. Even if it were possible to ask if they wanted to live or die, how sure can you be that they are actually able to make a truly conscious decision?

GERAINT REES, PROFESSOR, UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience: You have got to go a lot further in terms of establishing precisely what types of ability this person has. They may be able to answer five or six questions correctly, but they may still be very confused or they may have quite serious cognitive impairment. We just don’t know yet.

JULIAN RUSH: But the scientists involved believe their technique, at the very least, could help better diagnose whether someone is truly PVS or not.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The researchers said they found signs of awareness only in patients with traumatic brain injury, and not in brains deprived of oxygen.

Those are some of the day’s main stories. I will be back at the end of the program with a preview of what you will find tonight on the “NewsHour”‘s Web site — but, for now, back to Jeff.