- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

IRAQ AMBASSADOR

White House defends Iraq pick

President Obama is standing by his nomination of Christopher Hill as the next U.S. ambassador to Iraq despite opposition from at least three Republican senators who want him to reconsider, Mr. Obama’s chief spokesman said Friday.

“The president believes he’s got the right man for the job,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Sam Brownback of Kansas expressed disappointment with Mr. Hill’s appointment - which Mr. Obama announced Wednesday - citing Mr. Hill’s lack of Middle East experience.

Under President George W. Bush, Mr. Hill led nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea. While considered a seasoned negotiator, Mr. Hill is viewed by many Republicans as too willing to make concessions to try to prod the country into giving up its nuclear weapons.

Mr. Gibbs said Mr. Obama has “extraordinary respect” for Mr. Hill’s ability to understand and resolve complex political situations.

“I think the criticism is answered by the very qualifications that … Chris Hill brings to the job,” he said.

The swift negative reaction from Congress could complicate Mr. Hill’s prospects for Senate confirmation. Democrats hold a narrow majority in the Senate, but the rules require support from at least 60 senators to end debate and vote on legislation or nominations.

FORMER FIRST LADY

Barbara Bush leaves Houston hospital

HOUSTON | Former first lady Barbara Bush has been released from a Houston hospital eight days after undergoing heart surgery.

Doctors at the Methodist Hospital discharged the 83-year-old former first lady Friday after her aortic valve was replaced March 5. A hospital statement said she left with her husband, former President George H.W. Bush.

In the statement, her heart surgeon said Mrs. Bush will have to restrict her activities for at least another three weeks. Dr. Gerald Lawrie of the Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center said she could then resume normal activities.

Dr. Lawrie called Mrs. Bush “a remarkable patient” and said her recovery “was very quick for this type of procedure.”

STIMULUS

Biden announces funds for Amtrak

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., once a regular rail commuter, said Friday that $1.3 billion for Amtrak in the economic stimulus package will go toward long-overdue infrastructure upgrades and expanded passenger rail capacity.

Speaking at Union Station, Mr. Biden said $105 million will be spent to replace a 102-year-old Connecticut bridge on Amtrak’s heavily traveled Northeast Corridor. Another $82 million will be used to replace old rail cars and put them back into service.

The national passenger railroad, long criticized for its reliance on government subsidies, has strong support from the Obama administration. As senator, Mr. Biden commuted for decades between his home in Wilmington, Del., and Washington. And in January, President-elect Barack Obama rode the train from Philadelphia to the nation’s capital for his inauguration.

Mr. Biden said every passenger rail system in the world relies on subsidies, as do airports and highways, and that for too long Amtrak has been starved for cash.

“I’m tired of apologizing for help for Amtrak,” he said. “It is an absolute national treasure and necessity.”

Amtrak Chief Executive Officer Joseph Boardman said the money will support about 8,000 jobs and will be put to use quickly.

The largest project to receive help is the aging drawbridge spanning the Niantic River near East Lyme, Conn. Repairs have been planned for 20 years but have been postponed because of a lack of funds. Further delays, Mr. Biden said, would lead to significant speed restrictions, slowing trains on the Northeast Corridor that runs from Washington to Boston.

Repairs were expected to begin almost immediately and should be completed in two years, Mr. Boardman said.

ELECTION

Closing arguments in Minnesota vote

ST. PAUL, Minn. | The disputed Senate race in Minnesota has been placed in the hands of three judges.

Attorneys for Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken on Friday wound up their closing arguments, which capped a seven-week trial.

Franken lawyer Kevin Hamilton said Mr. Coleman failed to offer adequate evidence to enable him to overcome Mr. Franken’s 225-vote lead. Mr. Coleman is asking judges to give voters whose absentee ballots were rejected the benefit of the doubt.

More than 100 witnesses testified during the seven-week trial.

The three judges will probably take several days to reach a decision on which ballots to open. That would lead to a determination about which candidate got the most votes.

PHONE DIPLOMACY

Obama calls leaders in South Pacific

President Obama telephoned the leaders of Indonesia and the Philippines on Friday to discuss working together on the world’s economic crisis, among other issues.

The White House said Mr. Obama’s conversation with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono also touched on education, health care, climate change, counterterrorism, and bird flu.

Mr. Obama noted that he and Mr. Yudhoyono would attend the Group of 20 nations summit next month in London.

The two leaders also discussed Mr. Obama’s desire to forge a new relationship with Islamic countries. At the end of his European trip next month, Mr. Obama is scheduled to visit Turkey, a Muslim country where relations with the U.S. were strained by the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

They also talked about how to make progress on democracy and human rights in Myanmar, formerly Burma.

In his conversation with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Mr. Obama commended her country’s efforts against terrorism and in modernizing the armed forces. They also talked about cooperating on other issues, including climate change and education, the White House said.

Mr. Obama and Mrs. Arroyo also reaffirmed their commitment to the long-standing U.S.-Philippine alliance, including the Visiting Forces Agreement, a bilateral pact that governs the conduct of U.S. forces in the country.

From wire dispatches and staff reports.

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