OK. Never fear, there is a nativity scene in the White House. Located in the East Room, it's the same one that has been there since 1967, says Semonti Stephens, deputy press secretary for first lady Michelle Obama - whose first words during a press preview Wednesday were, "Happy holidays. All right now, it's Christmas." For the record, the 18th-century Italian creche is made of terra cotta and carved wood, and was the gift of Mrs. Charles W. Engelhard Jr.
If there are extraterrestrials, please, let them be agreeable. If it's a microbe, let it be cute. In a minimal press release that already launched a thousand delirious rumors, NASA has announced a "News Conference on Astrobiology Discovery ... to discuss an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life." Thursday's the day for NASA's big reveal, staged at the space agency's Washington headquarters at precisely 2 p.m.
Hurray. Enough of WikiLeaks, lame-duck sessions and partisan discord. For five minutes, anyway. NASA watchers theorize the "discovery" has something to do with critters who prefer an arsenic-rich environment to air and water, possibly living the good life on the moons of Mars or Saturn. The mind reels. The conference will be broadcast live on NASA Television, available at www.nasa.gov.
Meanwhile, NASA is offering 7,000 heat shield tiles from the almost-retired Space Shuttle to schools and universities that want a piece of space history. Schools can put in their request at http:// gsaxcess.gov/NASAWel .htm. But this is still a federal agency: "Because the tiles are government property, a transfer protocol is observed. Recipients will be responsible for a shipping and handling fee of $23.40, which is payable to the shipping company through a secure website," NASA says.
"Ethics" has champions. A coalition of 10 conservative groups with "tea party" proclivities - including Judicial Watch, Democracy 21 and National Taxpayers Union - will descend on the Rayburn House Office Building on Thursday to urge the incoming House leadership to continue the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) - an independent nonpartisan investigative office that the coalition credits with "pressuring the notoriously inactive House Ethics Committee to do its job."
They have research to back the claim: The OCE undertook 69 preliminary reviews in 2009 and 2010, while the House ethics committee doled out 11 disciplinary actions in that same time, "more than twice its activity level during the Jack Abramoff scandal years of 2006 to 2008. The ethics committee took no action around the Abramoff scandals during that period."
The OCE has generated sizable opposition within Congress, points out American Enterprise Institute scholar Norman Ornstein - including the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, the Congressional Black Caucus and "many members who would prefer to keep ethics issues much closer to their own vests." House Minority Leader John A. Boehner and Rep. Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, were among those not so keen on the independent office.
"The tea party activists' involvement has already changed that dynamic, causing Boehner and Cantor to back off their comments about OCE. These tea partiers, and presumably their representatives in Congress, don't want the old-boy network that long 'managed' ethics issues - with both sides conspiring to avoid serious ethics investigations that would roil the waters. They want an honest, open Congress," Mr. Ornstein says.
Alarmed by the general lack of White House finesse in the foreign policy and national security issues, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton has been parsing the possibilities of a White House run since August. Mr. Bolton - once a student organizer for Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign - reaffirmed his intent to ABC Radio's Aaron Klein, and warranted an inaugural hit on Comedy Central: "John Bolton (and His Mustache) Might Be Heading for the White House."
The stalwart with the unyielding gaze and walrus 'stash, though, insists that his presidential run is the best way to focus the political discourse on the nation's security, Iran's looming nuclear prowess and U.S. stature on a global scale.
"It certainly would make the GOP nomination battle more interesting if Ambassador Bolton were to decide to run. He would do so in order to bring foreign policy and national security to the fore as issues," observes Rick Moran of the American Thinker. "One question: If he and Sarah Palin run, who would the media hate more?"
AGE BEFORE BEAUTY
"Wonkish, crotchety, and mostly bald." (A description of President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform co-chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, from Slate correspondent Annie Lowrey.)
POLL DU JOUR
- 87 percent of Americans say the current size of the federal budget deficit will likely cause a "major economic crisis" in the next 10 years.
- 85 percent are worried that the increasing federal debt will "harm the financial future" of their children and grandchildren.
- 59 percent say "cutting government services" to balance the budget should be the focus of lawmakers.
- 59 percent approve a freeze on federal salaries, 30 percent say taxes should be increased.
- 50 percent would allow tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 to expire.
- 34 percent would continue tax cuts "for everyone."
- 14 percent would allow tax cuts to expire for everyone.
Source: Associated Press/CNBC poll of 1,000 adults conducted Nov. 18 to 22.
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