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EARLYBIRD

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Obama to negotiate with Congressional leaders on stimulus, Gillibrand reportedly to fill Clinton's seat, plunging oil prices hamper Iraqi government, new home & jobless numbers worsen, European allies face tough call on Guantanamo detainees.

President Obama on Thursday "eliminated the most controversial tools employed by his predecessor against terrorism suspects," the Washington Post reports. "With the stroke of his pen, he effectively declared an end to the 'war on terror,' as President George W. Bush had defined it, signaling to the world that the reach of the U.S. government in battling its enemies will not be limitless."

• "Signaling his determination to use diplomacy to address the world's toughest conflicts, President Obama went to the State Department on Thursday to install high-level emissaries to handle the Arab-Israeli issue and Pakistan and Afghanistan," the New York Times reports.

 

• "Congressional leaders and" Obama "are having a hard time finding common ground on an economic recovery plan as Republican resistance to the stimulus package emerges in the House," AP reports. "The president and top Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate planned to meet" today "to discuss the status of the" legislation.

• "White House press secretary Robert Gibbs clashed with reporters Thursday over anonymous sources and access to President Obama, just one day after Obama pledged 'a new era of openness' in government," USA Today reports.

• "Obama is keeping his cherished BlackBerry, becoming the first sitting president to use e-mail," AP reports. "'The president has a BlackBerry through a compromise that allows him to stay in touch with senior staff and a small group of personal friends,'" Gibbs "said Thursday."

 

• "Wary of being caught short-handed in case of a domestic crisis, the Obama administration has asked nearly two dozen Bush administration officials in the Department of Homeland Security to stay in their jobs until successors can be named," the Washington Post reports. "The attempt at continuity is unusual in presidential transitions between parties."

• "Two years after a politically embarrassing $1 billion shortfall that imperiled veterans health care, the Veterans Affairs Department is still lowballing budget estimates to Congress to keep its spending down, government investigators say," AP reports. "The report by the Government Accountability Office, set to be released" today, "highlights the Bush administration's problems in planning for the treatment of veterans that" Obama "has pledged to fix."

• "In a research milestone, the federal government will allow the world's first test in people of a therapy derived from human embryonic stem cells," the New York Times reports. "Federal drug regulators said that political considerations had no role in the decision. Nevertheless, the move coincided with the inauguration of" Obama, "who has pledged to remove some of the financing restrictions placed on the field by" Bush.

Congress: Senate Passes Equal Pay Bill

• "The Senate on Thursday flexed its bolstered Democratic majority and passed an equal pay measure that Republicans blocked last year," The Hill reports. "The bill could be the first measure signed into law by President Obama."

 

• "Second-term Rep. Kristen Gillibrand (D) is set to be appointed to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Senate, New York news outlets reported Thursday night," Roll Call (subscription) reports. "New York Gov. David Paterson (D) is scheduled to make the appointment at a noon news conference" today "in Albany."

• "Democrats predicted House passage of President Obama's recovery plan next week after winning committee approval Thursday of major tax provisions and new health and jobless benefits for millions thrown out of work by the spiraling economy," the Politico reports.

• But "Obama ran into mounting GOP opposition" Thursday "to an economic stimulus plan that he had hoped would receive broad bipartisan support," the Washington Post reports. "Republicans accused Democrats of abandoning the new president's pledge, ignoring his call for bipartisan comity and shutting them out of the process by writing the $850 billion legislation."

• "Sensing there is a deal to be had for legislation that would allow bankruptcy judges to reduce the principal of a home mortgage, some lenders are throwing out ideas in an effort to reach a compromise on a bill that is a top priority of congressional Democrats," CongressDailyAM (subscription) reports.

• "A joke made its way around the Capitol" Thursday: "How do you know the 2008 election is really over? Because John McCain [R-Ariz.] is causing trouble for Republicans again," the Washington Post reports "Two and a half months removed from his defeat in the race for the presidency, colleagues say, McCain bears more resemblance to the unpredictable and frequently bipartisan lawmaker they have served with for decades than the man who ran an often scathing campaign against" Obama.

• "The chairwoman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies says she's scrambling to find some way to make it up to the thousands of ticket-holders who were denied access to Barack Obama's inauguration. In an interview with Politico, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said that the JCCIC is trying to put together a special commemorative program with photos of the president and vice president."

• "As FDA was skewered once again Thursday, this time by GAO, for failing at nearly every aspect of its mission, a House Democratic aide said House Energy and Commerce Democrats are looking to soon introduce legislation that beefs up the agency's power to police food, pharmaceuticals and medical devices," CongressDailyAM (subscription) reports.

• "A presidential election and a struggling economy took a toll on revenues at several prominent lobbying firms in 2008," The Hill reports. "More than half of the top twenty firms that shared their revenue figures with The Hill made less money in 2008 compared with 2007."

Iraq: Plunging Oil Prices Hamper Government

• "Ryan C. Crocker, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Iraq, warned Thursday that a precipitous withdrawal of American troops runs 'some very serious risks,' from the resurgence of the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq to a collapse of faith in a nascent Iraqi state that still faces what he called 'enormous challenges,'" the Washington Post reports.

• "Iraq's government will have dramatically less money to spend this year than expected because of plunging oil prices -- a dire economic situation that's already forced the country to slash rebuilding plans by 40 percent, The Associated Press has learned. As the U.S. seeks a timetable for withdrawal, cutbacks on spending and jobs could trigger heightened violence."

• "Army investigators have concluded that a Green Beret electrocuted in a shower in his barracks in Iraq was the victim of negligent homicide in a case involving the largest American contractor in Iraq, according to a written statement from one investigator," the New York Times reports.

Nation: Federal Agents Raid Pa. Contractors With Links To Murtha

• "Legions of pro-life activists Thursday descended on the Mall for the annual March for Life, marking the 36th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in Roe v. Wade," the Washington Times reports. "Marchers said the crowd was about as large as those of previous protests, which drew about 250,000."

• "Federal agents raided two small Pennsylvania defense contractors that were given millions of dollars in federal funding by Rep. John Murtha, chairman of the defense appropriations committee and one of the most powerful men in Congress," the Wall Street Journal reports.

• "Researchers have documented what they call an Obama effect, showing that a performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test administered before Mr. Obama's nomination all but disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election," the New York Times reports.

• "In revenue-strapped Nevada, where foreclosed homes dot suburban streets and poker tables sit empty, it's come to this: A state legislator wants to talk about legalizing -- and taxing -- prostitution in Reno and Las Vegas," the Los Angeles Times reports.

• "A confession by Portland's first openly gay mayor that he lied about having sex with a teenager is dividing this famously progressive city, as well as its gay community," AP reports. "Just three weeks after Sam Adams was sworn in, many gays are questioning whether he is the man they want as their trailblazer."

• "The death rates of trees in Western U.S. forests have doubled over the past two to three decades, according to a new study spearheaded by the U.S. Geological Survey, driven in large part by higher temperatures and water scarcity linked to climate change," the Washington Post reports.

• Juárez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, "are divided only by the narrow Rio Grande and a couple of border checkpoints that have done little over the years to stop the steady back and forth of trade and family visits.... But in other ways the two cities are worlds apart these days," the New York Times reports. "El Paso still enjoys its status as one of the safest cities in the United States, while Juárez, a city of 1.5 million that has always been rough, has become a battleground for drug cartels. More than 1,550 people were killed there in drug wars last year."

Economy: Bank Rescues Amount To Nationalization, Some Experts Say

• "President Obama's campaign slogan, 'Yes we can,' is becoming more like 'Yes we can, but it will take awhile' when it comes to the economy," the Washington Times reports. "A rash of gloomy economic reports Thursday demonstrated why his administration has been working to dampen expectations for a quick economic recovery."

• "In further signs of the dire economic situation, new-home construction fell to record lows in December and jobless claims continued to soar, the government reported Thursday," the New York Times reports. "New-home construction fell 15.5 percent from November to December to an annual pace of 550,000 units, the slowest pace since the Commerce Department starting compiling the data in 1959."

• "The U.S. financial regulatory system is seriously outdated and needs urgent reform to avoid a further worsening of the economic crisis, concludes a report released" Thursday "by the Government Accountability Office," the Washington Post reports. "The report to Congress renewed concerns about the Treasury Department's handling of emergency economic stabilization measures."

• "The U.S. government's decision to pledge billions of additional dollars with strings attached to Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp. may be nationalization by another name, according to former bankers and regulators," Bloomberg News reports. "Faced with pressure from lawmakers, banks have shaken up management, eliminated executive bonuses and staff and canceled conventions."

• "Federal Reserve officials are likely next week to stick closely to their approach for handling the financial crisis -- near-zero interest rates and a focus on special lending programs -- despite internal rifts about some of their tactics," the Wall Street Journal reports.

• "U.S. companies are reducing dividends at the fastest rate in half a century, squeezing investors who depend on the payouts more than ever to boost returns," Bloomberg News reports.

• "Confronting a wave of high-profile closings at top eateries, restaurants are bracing for a tough year -- and taking new steps to try to survive," the Wall Street Journal reports. "Fine dining sales, which totaled about $7 billion last year, are expected to plummet 12% to 15% in 2009."

World: Congolese Rebel Leader Arrested In Rwanda

• "After years of criticizing the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and now hailing President Obama's decision to close it, Europe faces a dilemma. Should it take in some former inmates, a move that may carry security risks as well as legal consequences?" the Washington Times reports. "The reaction has not been uniformly negative."

• "The emergence of a former Guantánamo Bay detainee as the deputy leader of Al Qaeda's Yemeni branch has underscored the potential complications in carrying out the executive order President Obama signed Thursday that the detention center be shut down within a year," the New York Times reports. "The militant, Said Ali al-Shihri, is suspected of involvement in a deadly bombing of the United States Embassy in Yemen's capital, Sana, in September. He was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007."

• "Following the recent violence in Gaza, the complex challenge posed by grassroots militant organizations such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip is poignantly clear," the Washington Times reports. "In Lebanon, the militant Shi'ite group Hezbollah, which fought another war with Israel in 2006, presents a similar conundrum for the Obama administration."

• "Israel's 22-day war on Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza, forced 50,000 people into shelters, according to U.N. officials," the Washington Post reports. "They say 15,000 remain in such facilities because of damage to their homes -- with countless more finding refuge in the care of relatives."

• "Democratic Republic of Congo renegade General Laurent Nkunda, who led a rebellion against the government that extended the world's deadliest conflict since World War II, has been captured," Bloomberg News reports. "Nkunda was seized last night in neighboring Rwanda after he sent three battalions to repel an advance by a joint Congolese- Rwandan force, Captain Olivier Hamuli, a military spokesman, said."

• "Venezuela will press the Obama administration in the coming days to extradite a former senior official in Venezuela's secret intelligence police so that he can be tried for the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, according to lawyers for the government here," the New York Times reports. "The move will test the new administration's willingness to engage on a festering issue that has further strained America's relations with Venezuela and Cuba."

• "The first satellite dedicated to monitoring carbon dioxide emissions was launched into space" today "from a center in Japan, where officials hope to gather information on climate change -- and help the country compete in the lucrative satellite-launching business," AP reports.

• "As some 200 million or more migrant laborers head home this weekend to celebrate the Lunar New Year, they are facing an unprecedented crisis: unemployment and a fraying safety net," the Wall Street Journal reports. "For rural Chinese" the holiday is "a time to make concrete plans about where they will work next year.... But this year, many are heading home with no prospect of returning to their jobs."

• "To the government of" Colombian "President Alvaro Uribe, Cartagena" -- a tourist destination with expensive hotels and restaurants -- "symbolizes a new Colombia, vibrant and prosperous," the Washington Post reports. "But outside the 400-year-old walls, away from the cobblestones and charm of the old city, is a swath of slums so miserable that public health officials compare conditions there to life in sub-Saharan Africa."

Transition: War On Terror Over?

• While a series of executive orders from Obama has effectively ended the "war on terror," his pick for national intelligence director said Thursday that some secret interrogation techniques will still be needed. Read more in Lost In Transition, NationalJournal.com's blog on the changeover.

Commentary: Executive Order Evaluation

• Scrutiny, praise and words of caution all find their way into reviews of Obama's executive orders in Earlybird's Pundits & Editorials section.

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