- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2009

WHITE HOUSE

Gibbs defends choice for medal

The White House is standing by its decision to award a Presidential Medal of Freedom to former Irish President Mary Robinson.

Some Jewish groups say Ireland’s first female president is biased against Israel.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs says Mrs. Robinson is being recognized with the nation’s highest civilian honor because she is a prominent advocate for women’s rights in her country and around the world.

Mr. Gibbs says she’s made statements that President Obama doesn’t agree with. But he said that is likely the case with a number of the 16 people Mr. Obama plans to recognize for their lifetime achievements.

Mr. Obama is scheduled to award the medals at the White House on Aug. 12.

TRANSPORTATION

Driver phoning, texting targeted

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday he will convene a summit of experts to figure out what to do about driver cell phone use and texting, practices that studies - and a growing number of accidents - show can be deadly.

Mr. LaHood told a news conference he intends to gather senior transportation officials, safety advocates, law enforcement representatives, members of Congress and academics who study distracted driving for the summit next month in Washington.

If it were up to him, he would ban texting while driving, Mr. LaHood said.

However, past safety initiatives like seat belts have shown that a simple ban often isn’t enough to get drivers to change their habits unless it’s accompanied by education and enforcement, he said.

“When we are done, I expect to have a list of concrete steps to announce,” Mr. LaHood said.

“The bottom line is, we need to put an end to unsafe cell phone use, typing on BlackBerrys and other activities that require drivers to take their eyes off the road and their focus away from driving.”

ENERGY

Salazar stumps for cap and trade

LONGMONT, Colo. | Standing inside a solar energy plant, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar vowed Tuesday that the health care debate in Washington won’t slow progress on a sweeping climate change bill.

“The president says we’re going to do it. We’re going to get it done,” said Mr. Salazar, who testifies Thursday before a Senate committee taking up an administration-backed bill known as cap and trade.

The bill, which narrowly passed the House earlier this summer, imposes the first limits on greenhouse gases. It eventually would lead to an 80 percent reduction by putting a price on each ton of climate-altering pollution.

However, the Democrat-controlled House approved the bill by a slim margin, and Senate Democrats say changes will be necessary to clear that chamber.

PENTAGON

Marines boot social Web sites

The Pentagon is reviewing the use of Facebook and other social networking sites on its computers with an eye toward setting rules on how to protect against possible security risks.

The Marine Corps on Monday issued an administrative directive saying it was banning the use of Marine network for accessing such sites as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. The order doesn’t affect Marines’ private use of such networks on personal computers outside of their jobs.

However, the service’s computer network already effectively blocks users from reaching social networks, officials said. Marine officials said part of the reason for the new ban was to set up a special waiver system that governs access for Marines who need to reach the sites as part of their duties.

The Marines, in a statement, said the “very nature of social networking sites creates a larger attack and exploitation window, exposes unnecessary information to adversaries and provides an easy conduit for information leakage.”

The U.S. Strategic Command also last month issued a warning to all services that it was thinking about a ban on Web 2.0 sites.

SENATE

Food programs gain extra dollars

The Senate on Tuesday passed a $124.3 billion agriculture spending bill that pays to add millions of people to the food stamp rolls as rising numbers of the jobless are forced into the program.

Money for the federal school lunch program is going up 12 percent as well, while a popular program that gives additional food aid for poor children and pregnant women received a 9 percent increase in funding.

The bill passed by a 80-17 vote.

As the nation’s unemployment rate nears 10 percent, a record 34.4 million people - or one in nine Americans - were participating in the food stamp program as of May. That’s an increase of 650,000 people from the previous month and up 6 million from the same time last year.

More than two-thirds of the measure, $86 billion, goes for domestic food programs, including $61 billion for food stamps. The legislation provides the money for the program, though the cost is set by how many eligible families participate.

The average monthly food stamp benefit for a family was $295 in April.

POLITICS

Biden: Stimulus boosting economy

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. says the Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus program is meeting its goals in revving up the ailing economy.

Mr. Biden told reporters Tuesday that spending by state and local governments increased in the last quarter, as did household incomes, while investments by businesses had contracted less than expected. He also said that home and car sales are rising as well, thanks to government incentive programs.

Mr. Biden credited the stimulus program for the positive numbers, and said he can say “without reservation” that it is working. The vice president commented after meeting at the White House with members of the administration’s economic team.

HITE HOUSE

Obama, reporter share a birthday

You say it’s your birthday.

It’s my birthday, too.

And so it went at the White House on Tuesday.

On the day he turned 48, President Obama decided to splash a little celebration on someone with whom he shares the birthday: legendary White House correspondent Helen Thomas, now a columnist with Hearst Newspapers. She turned 89 on Tuesday.

Mr. Obama emerged unannounced in the White House briefing room where Miss Thomas sat in the front-row seat reserved in her name. He led the room full of reporters in singing Happy Birthday, gave a plate full of cupcakes to Miss Thomas, watched her blow out one lit candle and sat down next to her to share a smiling photo.

The president said Miss Thomas wished for peace and no prejudice in the world and - working in a plug for his agenda - a health care reform bill.

And then he left without taking questions about his own birthday plans or anything else.

From wire dispatches and staff reports

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