Tales from the Trail

Would Congress swing its spending ax at the war in Afghanistan?

AFGHANISTAN/You’d think the war in Afghanistan would be the sacred cow of  federal spending. The Republicans now in charge of the House have always embraced “Support Our Troops” and “Defeat Terrorism” as two of the most serious ”Thou Shalts” of their political playbook.

But could the times be a-changing? Two influential conservative voices suggest they might be, as lawmakers search for the right balance between spending cuts and their own job preservation.

Grover Norquist, the influential political hierophant at Americans for Tax Reform, says in a Newsmax interview that the time has come for a serious cost-benefit discussion about Afghanistan.

IRAQ USANorquist says the United States will spend $119 billion this year in Afghanistan, a country with a GDP of just $14 billion. In his view, supporters of the war should not be afraid to debate their position, to come up with good reasons to stay and the benefits of doing so. “Only (conservatives) can convince the country to stay the course or to take a different approach,” he says.

Then there’s House Republican Ron Paul of Texas. He’s long been a voice crying in the wilderness about the need to scale back on America’s overseas military commitments. Except now, with the Tea Party’s ascent, Paul is no longer a political backwoodsman.

Washington Extra – Braving the weather

President Barack Obama quipped that Chinese President Hu Jintao was brave for going to his hometown at this time of year. But what about the visit to Capitol Hill today?

Between the warm reception at the White House and the chilly weather in Chicago, Hu met lawmakers who were quite cool in their welcome. They brought up China’s currency, human rights, the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize winner who wasn’t allowed to attend the ceremony, Tibet, the economy and trade. USA-CHINA/

“The U.S. and China do not share values and principles as some have claimed in recent days,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said.

Panda diplomacy: the remix

USAThe latest chapter in the long story of panda diplomacy was written at Washington’s National Zoo, where the Chinese government agreed to lengthen the “loan” of popular panda pair Mei Xiang and Tian Tian for another five years. Actually, the loan is conditioned on whether they produce a new heir or heiress to the cuteness of panda-dom in the next two years;  one or both could be exchanged for more fecund substitutes.

They have a good track record: Washington native Tai Shan, born in 2005, headed back to China last year.

This was a big enough deal for President Barack Obama to mention it at an elaborate state dinner at the White House for Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Hu’s state dinner menu as American as apple pie – corrected

USA-CHINA

The White House usually pays tribute to its state dinner guests by planning menus that pay homage to the visitors’ country.  But the Chinese delegation wanted an American experience — which they are getting in spades on Monday Wednesday night.

The state dinner menu features Maine lobster, steak and potatoes and apple pie with vanilla ice cream, accompanied by an array of U.S. wines. And the entertainment is “An Evening of Jazz,”  the uniquely American musical form.

Here is the menu:

    D’Anjou Pear salad with Farmstead Goat Cheese, fennel, black walnuts and white balsamic vinegar Poached Maine lobster with orange glaze carrots and black trumpet mushrooms, served with a Dumol Chardonnay “Russian River” 2008 Lemon Sorbet Dry-aged rib eye with buttermilk crisp onions, double-stuffed potatoes and creamed spinach, accompanied by  Quilceda Creek Cabernet “Columbia Valley” 2005 Old-fashioned apple pie with vanilla ice cream, served with Poet’s Leap Riesling “Botrytis” 2008

The two previous state dinners hosted by the White House have taken place in tents erected on the building’s lawn, but Wednesday night’s was held entirely inside, with tables erected in the Blue Room, Red Room and State Dining Room for dinner, and the evening’s enertainment in the East Room.

2012 possibility? The candidate speaks Mandarin

President Barack Obama was asked bluntly about the buzz that his Ambassador to China may turn into a Republican rival for the White House in 2012.

A Newsweek article about Ambassador Jon Huntsman has been seen by some as hinting at a potential run for the White House by the former Republican governor of  Utah.

CHINA/Obama responded with praise and humor to the question posed at a news conference with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Hillary wants a break, but maybe just a little one

RTXUT4X_Comp-150x150Hillary Clinton is committed to remaining U.S. secretary of state through Barack Obama’s first term. What will she want then? The answer seems to be “spare time”. But maybe just a little.

Hillary’s future has long been the subject of swirling speculation. Would she run for president against Obama in 2012? Join his ticket as the vice presidential nominee? Replace Bob Gates at the Pentagon?

The only sure bet is that she’s content to remain in the Obama administration through 2012.

Washington Extra – Modern pursuits

Former Vice President Dick Cheney says he’s using modern technology like a BlackBerry and Kindle, when he didn’t even have a cellphone at the White House.

“I’m not totally modern. I still write long-hand and don’t use a computer for that kind of thing,” Cheney said in an NBC interview. “My grandchildren still laugh at me,” he said, and his 3-year-old grandson showed him how to play the Angry Birds game on an iPad. USA-CHINA/

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, while sticking to their well-trod positions on healthcare, did refrain from aiming big slingshots at opponents. (Angry Birds fans, that’s for you).

Guess who’s not coming to dinner with Hu

Usually politicians flock to a high-profile event like moths to a flame.

But we’re learning that isn’t quite the style of the new Speaker of the House.

OBAMA-CHINA/The White House is rolling out the red carpet for China’s President Hu Jintao with one of the most formal of all events — the State Dinner.

This will be only the third hosted by President Barack Obama during the two years of his presidency — the previous ones were for the leaders of India and Mexico.

Obamas volunteer at school to celebrate King holiday

President Barack Obama volunteered at a local school on Monday to mark the Martin Luther King Day holiday, testing his talents as a painter while emphasizing the importance of community service in America.

Obama, who was joined by his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters, helped out at a middle school, where volunteers were painting dancing fruit on the cafeteria walls to encourage healthy eating habits. The first lady has made fighting childhood obesity one of her signature issues since coming to the White House.

Obama painted an apple that looked like a cartoon character flexing its muscles.

Obamas make rare church visit

Margaret Chadbourn of Reuters reports the following on the Obama family’s church visit.

President Barack Obama , his wife Michelle, and their two daughters made a rare visit to a Washington church service on Sunday and were promptly invited by the pastor to become members of the congregation.Obama_family

The Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, a few blocks from the White House, welcomed the Obama family for a special service celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. on the eve of the holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader.