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White House reminds agencies to stay away from politics, and Sen. Byrd is hospitalized. Plus: Obama addresses foreign policy challenges at U.N. summit.

September 23, 2009

White House: NEA Fallout Prompts Warning

• "The White House on Tuesday instructed government agencies to keep politics away from the awarding of federal grants, a step taken as the administration sought to minimize the fallout after an official at the National Endowment for the Arts urged artists to advance President Obama's agenda," the New York Times reports.

• Obama "faces significant doubts from the American public about the war in Afghanistan and his handling of foreign policy, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll," the Wall Street Journal (subscription) reports. "The poll of more than 1,000 adults, taken within the past week, shows growing optimism that the economy has begun to turn around. And the president's overall approval rating has held steady at 51% since August."

World: At U.N., Obama Pushes For Mideast Peace

• Obama "on Tuesday defended U.S. efforts to reduce carbon emissions from international criticism and prodded Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make concessions toward a peace deal," The Hill reports. "A busy day spent pivoting from one foreign policy challenge to another at the United Nations General Assembly was capped with a head-to-head meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao, who was expected to press Obama on the U.S. commitment to free trade less than two weeks after his country was hit with new U.S. tariffs on tire exports."

 

• Obama and Hu Jintao "offered each other diplomatic assurances Tuesday at a testy time in their nations' complex relationship," the Wall Street Journal (subscription) reports. "Mr. Obama said he was looking forward to visiting China in November, a trip that has long been expected as part of Mr. Obama's trip to Asia to attend a forum of Asia-Pacific leaders in Singapore."

• "During talks this week with his American counterpart, Russia's top drug enforcement official, Viktor P. Ivanov, will press the United States to step up efforts to destroy Afghan poppy cultivation, which he said was feeding a devastating drug problem in Russia," the New York Times reports. "The request comes just as American policy makers have swung sharply away from Bush-era programs to eradicate the opium poppy crop, which is used to produce heroin. After a visit to Afghanistan in July, the Obama administration's special envoy for the region, Richard C. Holbrooke, said poppy eradication had alienated poor farmers and was 'driving people into the hands of the Taliban.'"

National Security: Troop Surge Divides Senate

• "Senate Republicans on Tuesday looked to stiffen" Obama's "resolve to carry out a major troop escalation in Afghanistan, as Democratic leaders moved to put on the brakes before thousands more U.S. troops are sent into combat," Roll Call (subscription) reports. "Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said that at this point he would not support increasing troop levels and threw his weight behind Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin's (D-Mich.) proposal to instead bolster Afghan troops and government infrastructure."

• "Government officials and experts Tuesday urged Congress to centralize government oversight of biological research labs, which have proliferated since the 2001 anthrax attacks, as part of an effort to develop medical countermeasures to the use of biological pathogens as weapons," CongressDailyAM reports. "'There needs to be, clearly, somebody, in overall charge,' Jean Reed, deputy Defense secretary for nuclear, chemical and biological programs, told the Senate Judiciary Terrorism and Homeland Security Subcommittee."

• "Japan's new prime minister called Tuesday for 'close coordination' between his country and the United States on policy toward North Korea, a vexing issue that chilled relations between the two allies in the final months of the Bush administration," the Washington Post reports. "Yukio Hatoyama, who will meet with President Obama for the first time Wednesday, spearheaded the successful campaign by his center-left Democratic Party of Japan to end nearly half a century of almost unbroken rule by the Liberal Democratic Party. His government has suggested a substantial reassessment of Japan's military relationship with the United States and has demanded an examination of secret nuclear agreements between the two countries."

• Obama "has nominated the administration's point man on Southwest border strategy to be the new commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the nation's largest law enforcement agency, the White House announced Tuesday," the Los Angeles Times reports. "Alan Bersin, a veteran of federal border enforcement and a former San Diego schools superintendent, has served since April as assistant secretary for international affairs at the Homeland Security Department."

Congress: Byrd In Hospital After Fall

• "Sen. Robert Byrd was hospitalized Tuesday after falling at his home -- the latest health setback for the nation's longest-serving senator and another frustration for Democrats yet to enjoy the full strength of the 60-vote majority they won in the 2008 elections," Politico reports.

• "House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Tuesday that he hopes to send as many as four appropriations bills to President Barack Obama before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30," Roll Call (subscription) reports. "None of the 12 annual spending bills has made it to the president's desk yet. The House has passed all 12 but the Senate has only passed five, and all still need to go to conference committee. Hoyer said the House will pass a continuing resolution, or stopgap spending bill, by Thursday to keep the government funded at current levels for another 30 days."

• While the Congressional Black Caucus "boasts unprecedented power," there is "also an underlying sense of nervousness and concern about the shifting political landscape in the eight months since Obama was sworn in," Politico reports. "The sudden explosion of tea party groups, with right-wing protesters carrying signs depicting Obama as an African witch doctor or in a Nazi uniform, has infuriated some black lawmakers, who say such behavior wouldn't be tolerated for a white president."

Health Care: Centrists Step Up Bipartisan Talks

• "Democrats' failure to attract Republican support on health reform has launched new bipartisan talks in both chambers as groups seek to influence the legislation ahead of crucial floor debates," The Hill reports. "Seven Senate centrists -- two Republicans, four Democrats and one Independent -- are stepping up their activity after a bipartisan group on the Senate Finance Committee produced a bill with only Democratic support after months of negotiations."

• "At long last, the Senate Finance Committee began marking up a bill Tuesday that would overhaul the U.S. healthcare system. But little appeared to have changed," The Hill reports. "The opening statements delivered by 22 senators offered more of the same rhetoric that has characterized the healthcare reform debate for months. At press time, the panel had not reached the first of more than 500 amendments."

• "Senior Republicans challenged Democratic plans to require nearly all people to carry health insurance, sharpening attacks on the first day of Senate Finance Committee debate over legislation to overhaul the nation's health-care system," the Wall Street Journal (subscription) reports. "Put on the defensive, the committee's chairman, Sen. Max Baucus (D., Mont.), cut in half the maximum penalty for families that don't have health coverage to $1,900 from $3,800 per year."

• "Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is tacking left as she tries to put the finishing touches on a House health care overhaul, pushing for the bill to include two provisions reviled by many moderates: a tax on the wealthy to help pay for it and a public insurance option pegged to Medicare reimbursement rates," Roll Call (subscription) reports. "Pelosi's gambit runs the risk of inflaming Democratic moderates, who have tried to nudge the package to the political center in anticipation of a final bill that hews closely to what the Senate Finance Committee produces."

• "Congress' chief budget officer on Tuesday contradicted President Barack Obama's oft-stated claim that seniors wouldn't see their Medicare benefits cut under a health care overhaul," AP reports. "The head of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, Douglas Elmendorf, told senators that seniors in Medicare's managed care plans could see reduced benefits under a bill in the Finance Committee."

Energy & Environment: China Policy Outshines U.S.

• "Less than a year after" Obama took office, "international climate officials are lavishing praise on China -- and reserving harsher words for the United States," Politico reports. "China's actions to combat the problem were praised by U.N. and European leaders at the meeting; in contrast, several officials have said they want to see more effort from the United States... European leaders also have said that the United States needs to do more to tackle climate change, citing what they perceive as a lack of political will in the Senate to pass legislation cutting carbon emissions."

• Obama "will make the case for governments worldwide to cut subsidies for fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal to leaders of the Group of 20 at a meeting starting tomorrow in Pittsburgh," Bloomberg News reports. "...Obama is attempting to come up with reductions of greenhouse gases tied to global warming that the rest of the world can agree to in advance of a December meeting in Copenhagen aimed at replacing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol."

• "The Environmental Protection Agency said on Tuesday that it would require the nation's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases to start tracking their emission levels on Jan. 1 and report them to the government," the New York Times reports. "The E.P.A. said the reporting would cover roughly 85 percent of the greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States linked to global warming."

Economy: Frank To Ease Some Regulations

• "House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank has revised his working draft to create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency to ease the concerns of fellow Democrats on his panel by excluding merchants, retailers and other nonfinancial firms from its oversight and rules," CongressDailyAM (subscription) reports. "In a memo to Democratic members, Frank wrote that changes to his forthcoming draft will mean 'that merchants and retailers can continue to give their customers tabs and layaway plans without becoming subject to a new layer of regulation. Also, doctors and other businesses that bill their customers after a service is provided, including telephone, cable, and internet providers, will be excluded.'"

• "A key senator unveiled legislation Tuesday to further regulate the multitrillion-dollar derivatives market following the downfall of American International Group, going much farther than the Obama administration in some instances to rein in the industry," CongressDailyAM (subscription) reports. "Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chairman of the Senate Banking Securities Subcommittee, said his bill would 'put a truly comprehensive framework for regulating all such products.' His bill is part of various efforts to regulate the derivatives market after the downfall of AIG, which suffered catastrophic losses while trading credit default swaps -- insurance-like contracts used by companies to mitigate risk as well as by speculators who play the market for big profits -- which required a federal government bailout of $182 billion."

• "House lawmakers on Tuesday approved a further extension of unemployment-insurance benefits for jobless Americans in two dozen states, underscoring that the nascent economic recovery hasn't resulted in significant new job growth," the Wall Street Journal reports. "The latest 13-week extension, if approved by the Senate as expected, would be the fourth time Congress has extended the benefits since the recession began in December 2007. It would bring the total period of federal assistance for unemployed Americans in the hardest-hit states to 46 weeks, the longest time for which the government has provided such benefits."

• "Federal Reserve officials may signal that the U.S. economy has started to recover while maintaining their pledge to keep the benchmark interest rate near a record low for an 'extended period,'" Bloomberg News reports. "Policy makers meet as analysts project 2.9 percent growth in the quarter ending this month, compared with a 1 percent estimate in July. Officials will probably debate their purchases of $1.45 trillion in housing debt, including whether to extend the emergency program into 2010, analysts said."

Technology: Immigrants Can Track Status Via E-mail

• "The administration began a Web program Tuesday that eliminates red tape in the immigration process by allowing applicants to follow their status via text message and e-mail. It is the latest example of how President Obama and his advisers are bringing the technological innovations of his 2008 campaign to the federal bureaucracy," the Washington Post reports. "Administration officials said they also are developing a central method for Americans to receive government emergency information, consumer product recalls and other alerts electronically. The administration recently compiled all data from various federal agencies onto one Web site, Data.gov, and employed new technologies used by private businesses to run the government-sponsored 'Cash for Clunkers' auto trade-in program."

• "The Veterans Affairs Department could have a second failure in developing a financial and logistics information technology system, according to a new audit from the department's Office of the Inspector General," Federal Computer Week reports. "The VA's Financial and Logistics Integrated Technology Enterprise (FLITE) program -- projected to cost $609 million when completed in 2014 -- has least six deficiencies that echo problems in the VA's Core Financial and Logistics System (CoreFLS) system canceled in 2004 because it showed major weaknesses in performance despite an investment of $249 million."

• "Seeking more time to iron out concerns raised last week by federal antitrust regulators, the Authors Guild and the Assn. of American Publishers on Tuesday asked a federal judge to delay an Oct. 7 hearing on a controversial settlement with Google Inc.," the Los Angeles Times report. "The settlement, which requires court approval, would pave the way for the Mountain View, Calif., Internet search company to create a digital library containing millions of out-of-print books. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief Friday with the court outlining concerns that the agreement 'as proposed' could run afoul of class-action, antitrust and copyright laws."

Lobbying: CBC PAC Won't Appear At Conference

• "The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual legislative conference kicks off today, but don't expect to see the CBC Political Action Committee taking an active role in the events that bring together hundreds of people to discuss issues of particular interest to African-Americans," Roll Call (subscription) reports. "The CBC PAC, which raises personal and corporate hard dollars, and the CBC Foundation, which attracts corporate soft dollars, are separate organizations. The CBC PAC didn't schedule any events because it didn't want to have even the appearance of trying to use the legislative conference to its fundraising advantage, according to the group's executive director, Jessica Knight."

• "A law designed to shine a bright light on big political campaign contributors on K Street has in practice not been particularly illuminating, watchdogs charge," The Hill reports. "On its Party Time! Database, the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group, lists dozens of fundraisers hosted by lobbyists. But political campaigns have not filed bundler reports to the FEC, which tracks campaign spending, for all of those invitations, according to an analysis by The Hill."

Transportation: NTSB Warns Of Transit Risks

• "Mass transit systems around the country could suffer from the same electrical flaw that sent a subway train hurtling into another train in June, killing nine people, investigators announced Tuesday," USA Today reports. "The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued 'urgent' recommendations calling on federal regulators, local rail operators and a rail signaling manufacturer to inspect other systems for the same problem."

Politics: Bailout Now A Point Of Pride

• "Democrats are increasingly embracing the $700 billion bailout of financial institutions that began under the Bush administration," The Hill reports. "As the economy begins to claw back from the worst of the crisis, freshman members, House leaders and the Obama administration are all beginning to take credit for stabilizing the economy, particularly as some bailed-out firms repay the government. But this newfound sense of confidence carries political risks as lawmakers look ahead to the 2010 elections."

• "Through the end of August," the National Republican Congressional Committee "raised $23.8 million -- 51 percent less than at the same point in the 2005-2006 midterm cycle and down 32 percent from the amount raised at this point in the 2007-08 cycle that coincided with the presidential race," CongressDailyAM reports. "GOP operatives acknowledge the slow start, but they say the situation is improving, especially in a comparison with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee."

• "Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is taking a step closer to a possible presidential run in 2012," the Wall Street Journal (subscription) reports. "The two-term Republican governor, who has been crisscrossing the country this summer to build support for a possible bid in 2012, is in the process of starting a political action committee, the Freedom First Pac."

Commentary: Obama Foreign Policy In The Crosshairs

• In Earlybird's Pundits & Editorials section, Frank Gaffney says Obama's foreign policy is diminishing America's status, while Michael Gerson hits the administration for not meeting with the Dalai Lama.

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