- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 18, 2009

WHITE HOUSE

Irish prime minister trips over speech

Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen was just a few paragraphs into an address at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration at the White House when he realized something sounded way too familiar. Turns out, he was repeating the speech President Obama had just given.

Mr. Cowen was set to speak twice at the White House on Tuesday night because there were two different parties going on at the executive mansion. No matter - he would give the same speech to the two different audiences.

But Mr. Cowen was 20 seconds into his second address when it dawned on him that he was giving word for word the speech that Mr. Obama had just read from the same teleprompter.

Mr. Cowen stopped and looked back at the president to say, “That’s your speech.”

Mr. Obama laughed and returned to the podium to offer what might have been Mr. Cowen’s remarks. In doing so, President Obama thanked President Obama for inviting everyone over.

SENATE

Bill ending automatic pay raises passes

The Senate on Tuesday passed without debate a bill that would eliminate the automatic annual inflation-adjusted pay raise lawmakers have received since 1989.

The bill, passed by unanimous consent after it was offered by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, came a week after Mr. Reid blocked an identical measure offered by Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, as an amendment to the $410 billion spending bill to fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year. Democrats blocked Mr. Vitter’s amendment for fear any change to the bill could sink its chances of passage in the House.

But both Democrats and Republicans argued that forgoing the automatic pay raise permanently was the right thing to do in a time of economic hardship and rising unemployment.

WHITE HOUSE

U.S. to sign gay rights declaration

The Obama administration will endorse a U.N. declaration calling for the worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality that President George W. Bush had refused to sign, the Associated Press has learned.

U.S. officials said Tuesday they had notified the declaration’s French sponsors that the administration wants to be added as a supporter. The Bush administration was criticized in December when it was the only Western government that refused to sign on.

The move was made after an interagency review of the Bush administration’s position on the nonbinding document, which was signed by all 27 European Union members as well as Japan, Australia, Mexico and three dozen other countries, the officials said.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because Congress was still being notified of the decision. They said the administration had decided to sign the declaration to demonstrate that the United States supports human rights for all.

SMITHSONIAN

Worker cites museum asbestos

An ill museum worker charged in a whistleblower complaint Tuesday that the Smithsonian Institution didn’t properly contain asbestos-laden dust from construction at the National Air and Space Museum and penalized him after he complained.

The federal complaint said workers weren’t informed of the material’s presence until March 2008, even though the Smithsonian acknowledges it knew about the asbestos in the 33-year-old building’s outer walls since at least 1992.

Also Tuesday, a congressman who oversees the Smithsonian announced an April 1 hearing to examine workplace conditions at the world’s largest museum and research complex.

The Smithsonian, which denies it retaliated against exhibits specialist Richard Pullman, said it has no current plans to remove the material.

HOUSE

Lawmaker tapped for post at State

A California Democrat with experience in military matters is the Obama administration’s choice to be undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.

Congressional and administration sources told the Associated Press on Tuesday that Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher is the administration’s pick. The sources requested anonymity because the announcement is not official.

Mrs. Tauscher was a supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton when she ran for the Democratic presidential nomination last year. The State Department post requires Senate confirmation.

Mrs. Tauscher, 57, chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, heads the New Democrats, a centrist group in the House.

EMBARGO

Policy on Cuba irks 15 senators

A group of senators has complained that the Treasury Department is not easing trade with Cuba as called for under new legislation, according to a letter released Tuesday.

President Obama last week signed into law a spending measure that included provisions that ease a strict embargo on Cuba, focusing on allowing more travel and making it easier to sell agriculture goods to the communist-run island nation.

However, 15 Republican and Democratic senators accused the Treasury of failing to implement the changes by continuing to uphold payment restrictions introduced in 2005 by the Bush administration.

“The intent of those provisions was to facilitate already legal agricultural trade with Cuba,” the group said in the March 16 letter.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, said that there was an opportunity for the United States to make Cuba a bigger trading partner and that he would press the Treasury to resolve the matter.

VOLUNTEERISM

Obama backs AmeriCorps boost

The White House on Tuesday endorsed a bill to triple the size of the AmeriCorps program and expand service opportunities for students and seniors.

The House is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the measure, which would increase AmeriCorps to 250,000 positions from the current 75,000 and create a new service corps in low-income communities focusing on education, clean energy, health and services for veterans.

The Obama administration in a statement of support said it “has called upon Americans from all walks of life to take part in civic renewal.”

One opponent, Rep. Pete Sessions, Texas Republican, said the legislation would dampen the efforts of established volunteer organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America and replace them with a government program.

SENATE

U.S. to target Mexican drug lords

The federal government is working on a plan to help Mexico in its fight against drug traffickers and could complete work on the initiative as early as this week, an Air Force general said Tuesday.

Gen. Gene Renuart, who oversees U.S. military interests on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border as the head of Northern Command, told the Senate that the plan likely would likely all agencies of government, including law enforcement and the military.

Among the priorities are likely to be measures to deal with violence that spills over the U.S. border, the flow of small arms from the United States to Mexico, support for the Mexican military, tightening border security and the spreading presence of Mexican cartels in U.S. cities.

AFGHANISTAN

15 lawmakers: ‘Reconsider’ surge

A bipartisan group of 15 congressmen has called on President Obama to “reconsider” sending 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan without first securing an exit strategy.

“We urge you to reconsider such a military escalation,” wrote the lawmakers, saying the planned deployments “may well be counterproductive.”

“We are also concerned that any perceived military success in Afghanistan might create pressure to increase military activity in Pakistan. This could very well lead to dangerous destabilization in the region and would increase hostility toward the United States,” they added.

Former presidential contenders Reps. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, and Dennis J. Kucinich, Ohio Democrat, told reporters the administration needed to clarify its policy in Afghanistan.

Mr. Paul said the letter was “just urging caution because we’re hoping, with the new administration, that we’ll have an administration that will lend itself more to diplomacy and working through other means other than always military confrontation.”

“Sending 17,000 troops over there and continuing the drone bombing of Pakistan is hardly a change in policy,” he added.

“A troop surge is not the answer,” Mr. Kucinich said.

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