Morning Briefing: February 16, 2012

The number of people seeking unemployment benefits fell to the lowest point in almost four years last week, in “the latest signal that the job market is steadily improving.” Applications for benefits dropped 13,000 to 348,000 — well below analysts’ expectations. It was the fourth drop in five weeks.

Members of a bicameral committee released details of their $150 billion deal to extend the payroll tax holiday for one year. The plan will extend unemployment benefits, but drop the maximum duration from 99 to 73 weeks, while also extending the adjustment on Medicare reimbursements for doctors known as the “dox fix.” Funds were raised by cutting federal worker compensation, selling radio spectrum licenses, and via other means. A vote is expected this week.

With the deal finalized, Congress seems content with effectively running out the clock for the rest of the legislative calendar. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told Politico that the chances of Congress dealing with any number of significant issues still unresolved before the November elections are “zero.”

Rick Santorum released four years of tax returns last night, the most by any of the GOP contenders so far. The Santorums earned around $1 million a year for each of the past three years — far less than Mitt Romney — but they paid almost twice as high a percentage as he did in taxes, over 30 percent.

Santorum is leading Romney in Michigan, Romney’s birthplace, according to a new poll from the Detroit News and WDIV-TV. The results showed that Santorum is up 34 percent compared to Romney’s 30 percent.

The actress in Pete Hoekstra’s xenophobic Super Bowl ad apologized, saying that her appearance in the spot for the Michigan Republican senate hopeful was “absolutely a mistake on my part and one that, over time, I hope can be forgiven.

An audit of 400 foreclosures by San Francisco officials found that almost all of them involved legal violations or suspicious documentation, suggesting foreclosure fraud around the nation may be far more pervasive than first thought. The violations range from not notifying homeowners that they were in default to taking back properties in auctions without proving ownership.

A record high of 8.4 percent of all current U.S. marriages are interracial — up from 3.2 percent in 1980 — according to a new Pew Research Center study. Researchers found that the biggest increase in the share of interracial marriages occurred among blacks, who historically have been the most segregated, and more than 15 percent of new marriages in 2010 were interracial.

President Obama told donors in Los Angeles yesterday that one of his proudest accomplishments has been, “helping to restore a sense of respect for America around the world, a belief that we are not just defined by the size of our military.”

And finally: Yesterday, a spokesperson said President Obama is a big fan of Jeremy Lin, the New York Knick. Lin responded very graciously last night, “I’m very, very honored and very humbled,” Lin said. “I mean, wow, the President. Nothing better than that.”