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Political Scene

- - Sunday, November 7, 2010

VICE PRESIDENT

Biden pledges support for Israel

NEW ORLEANS | After meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. told Jewish groups on Sunday that the U.S. under the Obama administration remains a steadfast and unwavering ally to Israel.

Mr. Biden met for about an hour with Mr. Netanyahu to discuss the Middle East peace negotiations, a move seen as a possible sign of movement for the troubled diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians. The peace talks broke down over Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank.

Mr. Netanyahu was in New Orleans to speak Monday to the general assembly of the Jewish Federation of North America, which is meeting for three days.

In a speech that drew enthusiastic applause from the assembly, Mr. Biden repeatedly stressed that the Obama administration backs Israel. He said the Obama White House "represents an unbroken chain in American leaders who have understood this critical strategic relationship" between the two countries.

Mr. Biden did not detail what he and Mr. Netanyahu talked about. But he did say the Israeli leader agreed that there was "no substitute for direct face-to-face negotiations leading eventually to states where two peoples are secure: A Jewish state and a viable, independent state of Palestine."

HOUSE

McConnell: Banning earmarks not easy

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says banning pork-barrel projects known as "earmarks" from congressional legislation is more complicated than it appears but that he is willing to consider such a ban.

Mr. McConnell says that ending the common practice of slipping funding requests for home-state projects into legislation won't cut spending. A ban on earmarks will only limit the discretion of where to spend the vast federal budget and not curb spending.

Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina has said he wants to ban all lawmakers' requests for specific spending. President Obama has backed that idea.

ILLINOIS

Winner to miss part of session

SPRINGFIELD | Illinois Republican Mark Steven Kirk won't join the U.S. Senate in time for the start of the lame-duck session, which complicates his pledge to fight any last-minute tax and spending bills.

The postelection session of Congress begins Nov. 15. State officials say Mr. Kirk won't officially be declared the winner of Tuesday's Senate race until late November. That should still let Mr. Kirk participate in two weeks of the session in December.

Mr. Kirk not only won a six-year Senate term, he also won the right to serve out the last few weeks of the current term. His campaign would only say that he "looks forward to being seated as soon as possible."

HEALTH CARE

Administration retools program

The Obama administration says it will cut premiums and upgrade coverage next year in a new program for uninsured people with medical problems.

The reason: Not enough people are signing up.

Government experts thought people turned down by private insurers would flock to the new Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, expecting 375,000 to sign up this year.

Officials say only 8,000 had enrolled as of this week.

Sticker shock is part of the problem. Premiums vary by state, and can range from $400 to $600 per month and higher for people in their 40s and 50s.

Health and Human Services officials said premiums will be about 20 percent lower next year, with new coverage options. Prescription drug benefits will get better.

PENTAGON

Military views Haiti damage

The U.S. military has begun flights over Haiti to take a look at damage caused by Hurricane Tomas.

U.S. Southern Command spokesman Jose Ruiz says flights from the USS Iwo Jima amphibious assault ship started on Saturday, one day after arriving off Haiti.

The ship has eight Marine Corps helicopters and two Navy helicopters that can pinpoint where aid is needed and can deliver relief supplies.

Mr. Ruiz said in a phone interview from Miami that the damage assessment flights were requested by Haiti's government, and that's all that's been asked for so far.

The State Department has said it has enough blankets, plastic sheeting, hygiene kits and other relief supplies in place throughout Haiti to help as many as 125,000 storm victims.

MEMOIR

Bush mulled attack in Syria

Former President George W. Bush says he considered ordering a U.S. military strike against a suspected Syrian nuclear facility at Israel's request in 2007, but ultimately opted against it.

Israel eventually destroyed the facility, which Syria denied was aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability.

In his memoir, "Decision Points," to hit bookstores Tuesday, Mr. Bush says shortly after he received an intelligence report about a "suspicious, well-hidden facility in the eastern desert of Syria," he spoke by phone with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"George, I'm asking you to bomb the compound," Mr. Olmert told Mr. Bush, according to the book, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters.

Mr. Bush says he discussed options with his national security team. A bombing mission was considered "but bombing a sovereign country with no warning or announced justification would create severe blowback," he writes.

A covert raid was discussed but it was considered too risky to slip a team in and out of Syria undetected.